Sunday, March 20, 2011

Amendment 10-A (The Presbys Are At It Again)

My comments from last week's meeting of the Presbytery of West Jersey. These were my words regarding Amendment 10-A, which would remove the "chastity and fidelity" requirement for ordination, opening the door for queer folk to be ordained as Elders, Deacons, and Ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

One quick note, there were three references to Nazi Germany tonight, all from the folks who are against ordaining queer folk. I gotta say that I would have gone a different way with Bonhoeffer. Also, could we please retire the phrase "The Homosexual Question"?

After discussion the vote was 67-67. Tie votes usually mean a no vote, but we voted to re-cast the vote at our May 17th meeting, with no discussion or debate permitted. So then, my comments:

I’ve only been a pastor for 2 years, but what I have realized is that the more certain I am that I am right, the more likely it is that I am wrong. This realization came to me while mediating a conflict in which all parties were certain that the problem was the other group’s fault. I know we have all been there in the church, all of us, elders and ministers.

The discussion around this amendment bears remarkable resemblance to that conflict—we all come from places of deep conviction and deep love for the Presbyterian Church. We all have our favorite Scriptures to support our convictions. Yet even in the midst of this fractious battle over ordination standards, we stand united in our love and respect for Christ—truly I believe it may be all that unites us.

Last fall I chose to publicly claim a queer identity. I chose to continue to serve the church and remain a member of the Presbytery—to live and work and have my being among all of you, even as a queer, divorced, woman pastor. It was a terrible risk. But my ministry at New Covenant continues, and I will remain as long as I am useful there.

Amendment 10A calls for us to submit joyfully to Christ and to examine our candidates carefully to see if they are a good fit for the community they will serve.  It is a risk. There will surely be some lousy queer elders, deacons, and ministers—perhaps you know some straight folk who are messy? And yet 10A allows for the possibility that the Spirit might be moving among queer folk in the same way that it moves among straight folk.

10A allows room for the Spirit to move in a church that has become paralyzed with grief and anger. I hope we will move into uncertainty, trusting that we are united in our love for Christ.  

Sunday, March 6, 2011

I Thought He Was Born In a Barn

Sermon, Sunday, March 6, 2011
by Katie Mulligan


Scripture Readings: Psalm 99, Exodus 24:12-18, Matthew 17:1-9


Today is Transfiguration Sunday, a day of glory and light and golden sunbeams in our church calendar.  A day of gleaming white robes (although I don’t dare purchase white robes with all the chaos in my life!).

The Lord said to Moses, “Come on up on the mountain and I will give you the law and the commandment.” So Moses and Joshua went up the mountain, leaving Aaron and Hur in charge of the people below. A cloud covered the mountain for six days, and the glory of the Lord settled on the mountain. On the seventh day, the Lord called Moses further up the mountain. The appearance of the Lord was like devouring fire, and the people below could see all the flash and glamour going on at the top of the hill. For forty days and nights Moses was on that mountain—that’s nearly six weeks! And the people below grew more restless—and they built an idol, a golden calf. But that’s a story for another day.

The Lord gave Moses the law and the commandments amidst a forty-day chat, complete with fireworks and drama for the people gathered below. And the people followed that law and the commandments about as well as you would expect any group of people to do (or that is, not well at all).

Then one day the Lord Jesus said to Peter and James and John “Come on up on the mountain.” And they went away by themselves. On the mountain, Jesus was transfigured into a glamorous figure, dazzling white clothing, skin glowing like the sun. And suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared to have a little talk with Jesus.

This reminds me, of course, of the end of Star Wars VI, The Return of the Jedi, when Luke Skywalker is visited by the spirits of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker. For those of you who are not Star Wars fans, Darth Vader is the bad guy Luke fought with lightsabers for three feature films, a representative of the strangling empire which sought to defeat the rebels and their allies: the Jedi. But in the end, Darth Vader revealed himself to be Luke’s father, and found redemption through his death, thus restoring all that is right in the universe.

Anyway. Jesus. With his disciples on the mountain, dazzling white robes and glowing skin. Elijah and Moses, these two great prophets/rock stars of the Hebrew scriptures. And Peter, in complete awe of what he saw, announced that he would build a house for Moses and Elijah and Jesus!  It is almost as if Peter saw Elijah and Moses and longed to just stay here in this triumphant moment. You can build a house for each, and perhaps they will stay. You can visit them on the mountaintop when it is good to be there. If you build it they will come. If you build it, maybe this moment will not pass away into other, more difficult moments. The glory of the Lord abounds, and when you feel the rush of it, it’s hard to let it go.

And then the Cloud of the Lord covered the mountain and declared, “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” And Peter and John and James did what any of us should do if a cloud speaks to you—they fell to the ground and trembled a bit. Until Jesus touched them and said, “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid—the very words of the angel of the Lord speaking to Mary when she was about to conceive this Christ child. Do not be afraid of the cloud. Do not be afraid of me. Do not be afraid of what lies ahead. And then he said nothing at all about the dwellings Peter proposed. He just said, “Ssssssh! Don’t tell anyone about this…” And they walked down the mountain back to whatever passed for daily life for itinerant followers of Jesus.

So the Lord gave Moses the law and the commandments. And then the Lord gave Peter and James and John the Messiah. We have the law and the commandments, and then we have the fulfillment of God’s covenant with us. Flashes of fire and mountain sized clouds, but also the intimacy of quiet chats with the Lord. This God once again proves to be a lover of paradox. Divine, yet human. Life reclaimed through death. Three and One. Unbounded freedom yet bound to the cross. The law and grace.

The other day I posted a comment on my Facebook page about God’s temper tantrums in the Hebrew scriptures, and a friend commented that “temper tantrum” might be a little too anthropomorphic to describe God’s actions. And yet how much more anthropomorphic can my words be when describing a God who became human? This is a God who leeched the calcium from Mary’s bones and teeth in the womb. We are left with both the glory of our transfigured Lord and the bleeding enfleshed human on the cross. These two seemingly irreconcilable manifestations of God might indeed drive us to the brink of faithlessness on a good day—and most of us prefer one or the other, don’t we? God as transcendent glory, speaking from clouds, flashing fire. Or God as embodied flesh, working with his hands, walking with his feet.

Those poor disciples, awestruck—thunderstruck, perhaps?  And what else are we supposed to do when God arrives in full supernatural power and glory? The psalmist writes, “The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble! Holy is He!” Awe, glory, fear and trembling—what else are we poor disciples to do?

My son and I went to the Princeton University library a while back. They had something I needed for my studies, and my son wanted to know if they had ancient scrolls you could look at. So we went inside and walked into the ancient scroll room (and yeah, they got one of those), and the librarian took some time to tell my son about all the scrolls you needed a PhD to be allowed to touch. On the way to the library we walked by the University Chapel, which might be better termed a Cathedral. It is made of impressive grey stone and seats a thousand or so people. He stared up at this gothic creation and said, “Whoa! Was Jesus born here?” I said, “No, honey. Jesus was born in a barn. This is just the house built for people to worship him.” My boy looked high at the building again and asked, “Why did they make it so big?”

He is not fond of big churches. One time we went with friends to a gargantuan church—a non-denominational, high-spirited, elaborate campus of a church, with thousands of members and regulars, and several services throughout the week. When we walked in the door, we registered in their computer for Sunday school—we had matching badges to make sure I picked up the right child. To get to the classrooms downstairs, a built-in, color-coded tube slide awaited—the children dropped down the rabbit hole, straight into their classrooms. I was a bit impressed. When I picked him up from Sunday school an hour later, he looked stressed, and he told me, “Mom. When we get to New Jersey, we’re not going to any church with more than 20 people in it.”  In many ways, this tiny church has been the fulfillment of that hope.

There is something so human about reacting in big ways to the splendor of God—big buildings and scads of people, feasts piled high with baked goods and casseroles, mission trips to far off places—big, bold Christianity with a Capital Cross. But Jesus didn’t even respond to Peter’s impetuous offer to build him a shrine. And Moses went down the mountain, melted the golden calf, and made the people drink it (an over-reaction, I think). Jesus’ gentle instruction, “Do not be afraid,” accompanied by human touch—what does this mean for us?

I read a little further into this morning’s psalm—after the part about the earth trembling in light of God’s glory and the earth shaking at the Lord enthroned on a cherubim (big winged creature). Just a few lines down: “Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool.”

Perhaps one might envision worshiping at the footstool of God as an act of dramatic obeisance—laid out prostrate on the ground, nose pressed to the earth. I have little idea what the psalmist intended with this line, but the footstool reminds me of my mother. When I was a girl, my mother embroidered pictures. For a time she was not well, and she crafted her way back to wholeness, one stitch at a time, re-learning to use her hands with French knots and fancy stitches. I was in awe of her art—each stitch so carefully made, tiny yet deliberately placed in the fabric. She told me stories of her grandmother, who spoke German, and the sayings she used to teach my mother to sew. Probably you’ve heard, “A stitch in time saves nine.” But the one I remember most particularly was, “Long string, lazy girl.” For if you know anything about sewing, it is tempting to use a long thread to avoid frequent knots and threading. But the longer the string, the more tangled the stitches get, until all you have is a mess that must be redone. So, long string, lazy girl. Make the extra effort to create beauty—meticulousness is a virtue (although not one I learned well).

I sat near my mother’s feet to watch her craft. For a very long time she worked on a flower pot full of spring flowers of color you could imagine. One day it was finished, and she framed it. It was a work of art, and one of my clearest childhood memories.

So perhaps to worship at the footstool of God is to sit near the Creator’s feet and watch in awe and joy at the making of this life. Perhaps the law and the commandments were handed down like my great-grandmother’s wisdom: “Long string, lazy girl.” 

I think sometimes God cannot help but shine with glory—and we humans have a tendency to get carried away in the face of splendor. This tiny church, with its homey comforts and imperfect ways may even be too much—Jesus never answered Peter about that little cabin on the mountain. We’re supposed to go out from here, to follow Christ into the world, taking with us the memory of sitting at the footstool of God, watching the Almighty stitch together each tiny, desperately important, piece of creation. And of course God glows while working this hobby—we all shine when we do what we love.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Gomer Sermon (repost)

So all of my readings this week were focused around a theme of violence toward women. I guess it's like that a lot of weeks, but we also watched No! The Rape Documentary and Pray the Devil Back to Hell for one of my classes this week, so it's been an intense week.

Two years ago I preached a sermon about Gomer (the woman in the Book of Hosea, not Gomer Pyle), and the preaching of that Word settled my rage into a useful place. Felt like sharing it again, so here ya go...

Sermon February 26, 2009
by Katie Mulligan

At Princeton Theological Seminary, students are invited to lead daily worship once during their senior year in Miller Chapel.  It was an opportunity to bring together what I had learned in 3 years, and also to contribute to the seminary community in gratitude.  Fair warning that it is a hard sermon, even for me to read, but I believe it offers hope to those who have suffered from intimate violence.  A few folks have asked me for it.

Love to you all!  Katie

First Scripture Reading: Psalm 139:1-12
Second Scripture Reading: Hosea 2:1-4, 10-16
Images of Santa Librada 

Perhaps we might take a moment and sit with the scripture as is. Whatever or whoever this passage brings to your heart, hold those images tenderly and lift them in prayer.

Three years ago I was asked to read scripture in chapel; it was the only time I have led worship here at PTS, and the passage I was assigned was from Revelation 19, part of which reads: “Salvation and glory and power to our God, for his judgments are true and just; he has judged the great whore who corrupted the earth with her fornication...Hallelujah!” There were two of us students reading that day, and I asked the professor why he asked me to read the Revelation passage instead of the other student, and he replied, “I figured it would be better to have a woman read that passage.” This started me on a journey through scripture to find the places where women’s bodies had been badly used to further our faith. These passages haunt me because they are so contradictory to the love of God I have known in my life. If we are not to cut these parts out of the Bible, then what are we to do?

A survey of commentaries on the Book of Hosea is not terribly encouraging. My study Bible introduces Hosea by saying that it is “thoroughly unified by the dominant theme of divine compassion and the love that will not let Israel go. At the heart of Hosea’s preaching is a gospel of redeeming love.” Another author, Dwight Hervey Small, wrote an article suggesting that Hosea’s treatment of Gomer provided a viable alternative to divorcing her or killing her. He wrote, “It is our conclusion that Hosea did not divorce Gomer, but in faithful love used every means to effect her redemption and restoration. He subordinated pride and personal hurt to God’s leading...Christian divorce counselors are provided a model in Hosea.” While the entire book of Hosea includes several other metaphors and themes besides Hosea’s relationship with his wife Gomer, I find it difficult to reconcile the idea of divine compassion and redeeming love with Hosea’s treatment of Gomer.

Reneeta Weems and other authors have added helpful Biblical and theological critique to the discussion. Yet much of it is focused on the linguistic and semantic difficulties of the text. Was Gomer a harlot? Or was she an adultress? Who was the father of her children, and so on. While this is helpful to try and understand the dynamics of what is happening in the text, I have to ask, is it relevant to what has happened in the text? One need only turn on the television or read commentary at internet blog sites to know that we are still excusing domestic violence by blaming the victim for not being a good enough wife or partner. Isn’t it still abuse no matter if the woman is sexually chaste or promiscuous?

When I read this passage, all I get from it is pain--The pain of Hosea’s fury and jealousy, and the pain of Gomer’s mistreatment. So many of the commentators simply took for granted that Gomer’s sexual infidelity counted as unfaithfulness toward the marriage but that Hosea’s physical and verbal abuse of his wife was tender discipline. This becomes even more problematic when the metaphor is extended to equate Hosea with God and Gomer with God’s people. For those of us in the church who have experienced abuse as men, women, and children, this metaphor cannot hold. For many of us in this world the threats of public humiliation, physical violence, starvation, and sexual abuse are far too real, and we cry out to God for deliverance from such things. How can we believe in a God who sanctions abuse for any reason? These texts haunt me, and we must seek another way through them.

To that end I place my body between you and the text this morning, not as a stumbling block to understanding the text, but to remind you that we cannot read scripture without these fragile bodies of ours. I invite you to place here also the bodies of those who came into your hearts at the reading of this scripture. Gomer has already placed her body into our chapel this morning, and we owe her the chance to be heard.

Gomer is labeled a prostitute, married, bears three children, is accused of adultery, and threatened with public stripping and death by thirst, yet we hear little of her voice, and only that which Hosea repeats for us. Poets and storytellers have tried to fill in that space with creative imaginings of what Gomer might have said. A poem by Kris Lindbeck, called “Gomer’s Complaint,” goes partly like this:

Who is this man?
This fool?

He keeps me up, crying
down on his knees by the bed,
forehead battering the ground
retching out between sobs “Oh my Lord”
“God have mercy.”

Once I put my hand on his shoulder
to comfort him (truly I’d have pity on a dog in such a state)
and he jerked away, angry,
like I was poison.
I thought he’d beat me
then, but he didn’t.

What does he expect?
He never comes to me,
as a man comes to a woman..

Gomer was clearly a woman of considerable strength and fortitude, for nowhere in the text does she submit or conform to Hosea’s demands. This is not a sermon to promote prostitution or adultery. Yet it is clear from the text that Hosea’s punishment of Gomer did not effect the reconciliation he desired. After stripping her of clothing and dignity and other human company, Hosea lamented (or is it the Lord) that Gomer went after her lovers and forgot him. In Psalm 139, which was so beautifully cantored for us this morning, we heard these words:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If these words are true and God’s spirit will never leave us, no matter the pits of hell we descend to, then surely the God of Hosea must also have been the God of Gomer, even while she was dying of thirst, naked and unrepentant in the wilderness. I wonder what is the image of God to whom both Gomer and Hosea cry? Marcella Althaus-Reid, a woman theologian from Argentina, wrote a book called Indecent Theology. In her discussions of Mary and Jesus she wrote of a virgin-christ figure revered in Buenos Aires named Santa Librada. She looks like the Virgin Mary, but is crucified and hangs from a cross. Santa Librada is an ambiguous figure—some see her as a crucified Mary and others as Jesus dressed as Mary. Althaus-Reid writes that,
Librada’s worship has originated around legal and social transgression. An old traditional prayer asks her to deliver a person from the police because she is the protector of petty thieves and bandits, those who are understood in Argentinian society as thieves by necessity, not choice....The prayer to Santa Librada...simply says; ‘Santa Librada, librame de esta desparada’ (Santa Librada, liberate me from this flight (from the police))...Librada protects those who cross legal boundaries in acting to fulfil these necessities. That is the starting point for her worship; acts of legal transgression where Christ or Mary cannot be invoked for protection.
Surely, this God of Hosea must also be the God of Gomer to whom she cries out in her pain and suffering. If we cannot find God in a certain place in scripture, then we must keep looking from different perspectives until we can. For it must be true that God spends time also with sinners and prostitutes. In Santa Librada we find a metaphor for God as one who extends love and protection to those who have transgressed and cannot repent. Is there anyone in our society more reviled than those who transgress gender and sexual cultural norms?

The turning point in the text comes at verse 14 where Hosea (or is it the Lord) begins to speak tenderly to Gomer. This troubles me, for part of the cycle of domestic violence is a so-called “honeymoon period” which typically follows violent episodes. The spouse who abuses shows up with flowers and sweet words of apology, and all is fine again until the violence continues another time. Anyone who has ever counseled a woman or man caught in this cycle can recall the frustration of watching this cycle play out. Anyone who has been caught in the cycle themselves can recall how desperately they wished to believe in reconciliation. Yet here, for the first time, Hosea makes a move toward mutuality. He gives back to Gomer her garden, the Valley of Achor, and he claims it as a “door of hope.” He now envisions a future in which Gomer will no longer call him Baal, meaning master or owner, and will now call him simply “my husband” or “my man.”

It is here that I find God’s presence in this text. For as we roam through scripture we find many places where God and humans hurt one another badly. It seems to me that at this moment, as Hosea or God creates a door of hope, that both Hosea and God have shifted their demands for love to an invitation to a hopeful future. We do not hear from Gomer directly whether she chose to step through that door into the future with Hosea and God. Indeed, the book of Hosea ends on a plea for Israel’s return to God, not the certainty that she has. This leaves the future open to possibility and hope, for through Hosea, God has said no more to oppression and violent love. What has been taken from Gomer will be returned—her land, her dignity, her hope. This is the promise of God who has also sent to us Jesus to be a door of hope for the world.

This crazy God of Hosea and Gomer, who perhaps resembles more Santa Librada than our traditional images, has restored to us our dignity and hope. We are free to enter into a relationship of mutual love with God, and we are free to walk away from it. This God who will follow us to the depths of hell, is holding the door open and waiting for us to walk through. But there will be no more punishment, no more pain inflicted. If we learn to trust that, how might we open that door for others? If reparations and giving back what was taken are the keys to reconciliation, what repercussions does that have for all of us who are fractured by centuries of racial and gender oppression? If restoring dignity is the key to living with one another in peace, how does that inform us as we quarrel over the ordination of gay and lesbian candidates? I put forth to you this morning that this passage from Hosea suggests we must let go of our authority to discipline and punish and allow the Other to decide whether to love us or even to love God. This is not easy Good News for those of us called to preach the gospel.

A few years ago at my home church, we ended Lent with a Good Friday service. Two of the men in the group had committed for Lent to study the issue of patriarchy and the abuse of women and children. When it came time for the Good Friday service, they asked to speak. They told us that they had been deeply affected by what they had studied and learned, and that although they didn’t believe they had ever directly abused a woman, they recognized that in many small ways they had contributed to the structures of our society that allowed women to be abused. And then they said they were sorry for their actions and for the actions of their brothers.

Something shifted for me that day, and for many other women who witnessed the men’s testimony as well. We discovered that forgiveness and reconciliation can occur in strange and ambiguous ways. The story of Gomer and Hosea is the tale of two people isolated from any other players. Our lives are intertwined and more complex than that. We will have to do this as a community—the two men in my church had never abused me, but they restored my soul that day. When the topic of oppression and abuse comes up for discussion I hear often “I never owned slaves; I didn’t take native lands; I’ve never hurt a woman/a child/a man.” You will hear these words in the church, probably most of us have spoken them. My friends on Good Friday showed me another way—perhaps you see it too.
The message of Hosea 2 is indeed one of tender love, but not through the abuse of Gomer’s body. It is the message of tender love from a God who came to understand love as a gift freely given and not taken; a God who has restored our dignity and hope in Christ; a God who waits longingly for us to trust and return in love.

This Franciscan benediction I got from Cheni the other day on Facebook:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.