Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her— that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom. -Isaiah 66:10-11

This is what happens when you choose a text to preach a week and a half early, before a family funeral, and without remembering the significance of the end of June (likely because of that funeral). And I mean, y’all can guess why I picked it: Jerusalem is the holy city, the very location of God on earth. The idea that God would locate Godself in such traditionally feminine imagery – in a breasted, lactating body – is such a departure from so much of the usual imagery… how does one not preach such a text when it comes up in the lectionary?

And then the world made it harder, in certain ways, to have the description of God embodied in the feminine; to be so overtly maternal, to have the imagery be so stereotypically female: the idealized female body as reproductive, inherently nurturing, silently one-dimensional. It all just reinforces the patriarchy that is so blatantly on display right now, in the Supreme Court and throughout the nation.

The Bible is a difficult series of texts, in this way: over the course of all of the books, women speak barely 10% of the time and are, unquestioningly, treated as the property of their male relatives by the majority of characters; an attitude which, by a deeply circular logic, ends us exactly where we are today. It ends us with a bible that, while it is not actually anti-abortion at any point, isn’t exactly a force for bodily autonomy either, at least, not from the perspective of the vast majority of the human characters.

But that’s the thing about the Bible, isn’t it? It’s a deeply meaningful series of texts in which we seek to know God – and often learn a great deal in the process – but it’s still a series of texts whose words and stories were chosen and written by and from the perspective of humans. And while the authorship of pieces is not always clear, it is absolutely safe to say that the biblical texts were written MOSTLY by men, if not entirely, a tradition which continued until recently in translation and interpretation. The choices of words and phrases that direct our understanding, that tell us who and what is important in a given passage (at least to those who held power over the course of centuries) was a process directed by men, and for their own particular purposes, whether or not they intended it that way.

This book of Isaiah is a good example: a quick reading of the English translations we’re most familiar with (the ones not from the last 20ish years) and the interpretations we still hear of them would seem to portray the antisemitic trope of the “wrathful God of the Old Testament” punishing the people for their sin… an interpretation, by the way, that lacks all the self awareness and self-reflection of the original audience, who never really did take Isaiah’s words to heart. But a closer reading, one that accounts for the context of the expansions of first the Assyrian, then the Babylonian empires, and the ways that the powerful leaders of Israel and Judah tried to position themselves to gain the most in that political scenario, calls into question a punishing God, speaking instead of one who points out the natural consequences of vying for self-aggrandizing power, instead of caring for one’s own neighbors. Because that’s Isaiah’s prophecy, time and again: that exploiting and marginalizing and refusing care to the vulnerable – feasting in palaces, for instance, while those who create the wealth of those feasting are hungry and unsheltered, and those who cannot participate in the economy starve – puts us in opposition to the world that God seeks for all of creation. The God of the Hebrew scriptures, every bit as much as the God of the second testament, stands on the side of those whom humans exclude, against those who would use, control, and exploit God’s creation for their own purposes.

Which means that this book of prophecy – written for a specific audience at a specific time, and calling them to account for specific actions and decisions – still has a lot to say to us today, as we inhabit a world in which the particulars may have changed but a lot of the patterns have not. It is still a world in which humans seek power for themselves through exploitation, and manipulation, and the refusal of self reflection or awareness. It is still the world in which the power of patriarchy, or of whiteness, or of capitalism – which stand us firmly on the side of our own self-interest and comfortable belief systems – rule the day, even while God continues to call us to a better way. And that better way exists, not in some far off afterlife, but in every choice we make and every act of violence we accept; it exists for us, even as it did for the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And it exists very much in the places to which Isaiah continually directs our attention: to the presence of God in exploited, excluded, marginalized bodies.

Which yes, in this past week, includes women, who have just lost the right to autonomy over our own bodies; who have just become, essentially, the property of the state; whose use as incubators for the potential for children has become more important than our own needs, or even our own lives which are already being sacrificed at the altar of white Christian nationalism. But if this particular outcome is our sole focus, then we are still among those whom Isaiah calls in. We are still the ones who refuse the suffering that we ourselves do not experience. Because, as Amanda Doyle noted in this week’s We Can Do Hard Things podcast, the laser focus of so much of feminism has kept at bay the intersecting issues        that might have shifted the outcomes of this week. 

Her example was Mississippi, in 2011, which put two ballot initiatives to the voters: a personhood amendment and a voter ID law. One, of course, would have made abortion illegal at all, from the moment of conception, and pro choice groups poured money into defeating it. The other would have added a burden to voting, which would disproportionately disenfranchise poor black and latine voters, who would otherwise be the majority in the state. The personhood amendment was defeated, the voter ID bill was passed… but both were reproductive rights issues. Because the now-skewed electorate went on to elect a legislature that did not represent the population, and passed the abortion ban that was, this week, used to overturn Roe.

Election night, in 2011, mostly-white feminists were feasting, while black women – whose maternal mortality rate is far higher – found their access to the democratic process curtailed. And I wonder what Isaiah would have said to that?

Because racism is a reproductive rights issue; everything that happened to white women in the Handmaid’s Tale had already happened in reality to enslaved and segregated black women.

Poverty, housing, transportation are reproductive rights issues.

Voting is a reproductive rights issue.

Gerrymandering is a reproductive rights issue. 

Disability justice is a reproductive rights issue.

Employer-based healthcare – which has now expanded to include employer-based abortion access, and is already being used as a bargaining chip in union negotiations – is a reproductive rights issue.

The penal system in this nation, which criminalizes poverty and maintains cycles of violence for the profit of those who own the prisons, and which disproportionately removes black and brown people from the democratic process – and black and brown babies from their families and cultures – is a reproductive rights issue.

Transphobia is a reproductive rights issue, because not all women have uteruses, and not everyone with a uterus is a woman. And because even now, this most recent ruling against bodily autonomy and privacy is being used to prop up calls for the outlawing of gender-affirming care, especially for minors.

The exploitation and harm perpetrated upon vulnerable bodies by the structures of our culture is often rendered invisible to those who are not harmed by those very structures. Patriarchy keeps the suffering of women and trans folk one dimensional, silenced but for simplified narratives, easily dismissed. White supremacy keeps the suffering of black, latine, and indigenous folk on the margins, twisted to create fear in those who might otherwise be moved to compassion and action on behalf of their neighbors. The same power structures that determined whose stories were told in scripture, or which actions were so normalized that it shocks us to hear that David raped Bathsheba? those remain with us, varied in form but retaining their hold on our ability to give the care we are called to give to those who remain in need around us

And still: the call is there. Our God is there. The same God who spoke through ancient prophets to make visible the exploitation, the harm, the inequities… our God speaks to us still, through prophets we seem to hear about as well as the ancient ones did. The call is there because our God remains, even when we struggle to see beyond our own needs or our own grief. Our God remains, even when the world seems to be crumbling around us, even when we want to set it all on fire, as indeed, Jerusalem crumbled and burned – sometimes from the inside – as the power plays of the elites of Judah led the people into devastation and exile. Our God remains, the same God who warned us of the consequences of our shortsightedness. Because our God is not a God who abandons us, or takes pleasure in our misfortune.

And ultimately, that makes today’s text a particularly poignant one: because God is still right where God has always been, in the same place from which our call has come throughout time.

For in an Israel where all has crumbled except the patriarchy (at least momentarily), God places Godself in one who would be no more than property, no more than the source of lineage for some man. God places Godself in a body which would have been valued by the world as a commodity, but which God saw as holy, as worthy, in itself. God places Godself in and among those whose very humanity is not a given, who have to cry out that their lives matter, even in the face of ridicule, even in the face of exploitation and violence. God places Godself in the bodies that our culture uses and discards, in the ones who are crucified for the sake of maintaining the power structures as they are. And God calls us, from those bodies, to Godself; to gather and be nourished, together. To be in communion and find comfort, together. To find the love that enables us to respond to God’s call, together.

God calls us beyond ourselves, as we have been called throughout time, into a world in which God’s creation is not used for the upholding of human power and status. God calls us into a world in which compassion and grace stretch us out across intersecting needs, into a world of justice and equity and bodily autonomy. God calls us into a world that embodies the image of the divine creative spirit, throughout all that God so loves.

In honor of Star Wars Day this week, I re-watched Rogue One. It’s a newer movie, a prequel to the original: the story of how they got the Death Star plans in the first place. And I have to say, it’s one of my favorite Star Wars movies because, unlike the originals, it contains clear reflections on what it was like to live in the Empire, in daily life. It shows the development of all the monuments to glory, with all their destructive power; the violence that is crucial to the imperial project, built upon bodies stripped of their humanity, used and discarded as the Empire desires. This movie shows the constant threat of oppression and annihilation as a means of maintaining order; indeed, in the opening scene of the movie the Imperial elite sent to kidnap and coerce a needed scientist calls the death star – the planet-destroying weapon – a means of bringing peace to the galaxy… to which the scientist suggests that Empire confuses peace with terror. And that is a truth that goes far beyond this one imaginary universe.

For such, indeed, was the Pax Romana, after all: the peace that was maintained by Imperial troops, a peace enforced by threats of violence and oppression. The infrastructure – the roads and aqueducts – for which Rome is now remembered and lauded were first and foremost for the sake of militarization and colonization. They served the assimilation of Mediterranean peoples into the Empire, stripped of their own local traditions and identities, their self determination and rule. For Rome also needed bodies to maintain and extend Empire: the bodies of soldiers, discarded in wars against external others or used to suppress anti-Rome uprisings, including among their own peoples. But also the bodies of the enemies, the “other” against whom Rome created a united identity: those who were tortured publicly for the entertainment of the elites and the controlling terror of the masses, either in the coliseum or hanging from crosses along those well-maintained roads.

This is the way of Empire, always: to create enough comfort to placate the people, giving them safety from battles among local threats, infrastructure and commerce to boost the economy. But Empire always comes at a deep physical cost: in soldiers and laborers, used and discarded and always under the threat of reprisal for ingratitude. It is the way of Empire to create a ritualized ideology that granted a common sense of identity, of citizenship within the Empire, while maintaining an inherent, invisible segregation of those whom the Empire was designed to maintain in power
and those upon whose bodies such power
was enacted and called peace.

It was against precisely such structures of Empire that Revelation was written, and circulated among seven Mediterranean churches serving poor, oppressed communities who had generally known more terror than peace. Revelation is deeply allegorical, with stylized metaphors and heightened imagery drawn from the apocalyptic books of the Hebrew Bible and used as a shield, a code, against any Roman authority into whose hands this writing might have fallen. The imagery is often hard for us – with millennia of distance, less frequent use of shared storytelling to communicate, and usually less familiarity with Daniel, Ezekiel, etc – but it is imagery that, upon examination, holds up a mirror to Empire in any form, and shows it for what it is, if we are willing to look beyond the infrastructure, the comfort we mistake for peace. Revelation shows forth the violence inherent in Empire: the violence necessary to maintain hierarchies of power, the scapegoating, the dehumanization, the use of bodies as material for the Imperial project. Revelation, in densely poetic language, asks us to choose: asks us if the ways of Empire are our ways, are the only ways. Revelation asks us if we like the image of ourselves that we see in its truth: the violence, the cruelty, the erasure upon which our lived realities are built?

And even as it holds up that mirror, and demands that we take a long, hard look, Revelation offers us an alternative. It offers a way we cannot fully imagine on our own, as entrenched as we are in systems not of our own design, systems that are all we have ever known. Revelation offers us a way that shifts us out of human, us/them lenses and reminds us that such exclusionary ways are not the ways to which we are called.


And so Revelation takes our desire for strength, for order. It holds up an image of a lion for us to admire and long for… then shines a light on all the things that strength and order mean, and lead to: hate, fear, anger. And then Revelation turns the lion we’d expected – heard about, hoped for – into a lamb: a lamb that understands the violence of Empire and refuses to engage it. Revelation turns all our notions of strength upside down and asks us to choose between the dehumanizing power of violence and the strength of our own commitments to community, to justice, to love. Revelation asks us to choose the strength that calls not only the powerful, the expected elite, to worship, but which calls all of those who have long been oppressed, long been violated, long been excluded. Because, Revelation reminds us, God calls the multitudes, no longer bodies to be exploited, no longer the others against whom we create our identity, but beloved community standing together on level ground, with no divisions among or between them. God calls the multitudes, centers their stories which have too often been erased, in a love that includes them all in the possibility of a world that yet could be.


Revelation reminds us (despite all the bloody language we’ve come to associate with atonement theology) that oppression, violence, dehumanization are the tools of Empire: NOT OF GOD. Oppression, violence, dehumanization are the tools of Empire, not just of the Romans – though that was the empire they knew best – the tools of all of the nations that use terror and call it peace, from the Coliseum to the Death Star… to the Supreme Court.

C. Wess Daniels, in his excellent commentary on Revelation, called the economics of Empire:
“that which benefits some at the expense of the many. Revelation reveals that imperial economics is an entire system of oppression. It is not just a matter of one person not giving enough wealth [or power (my addition)] away; it is a whole system bent on exploitation.
“Revelation reveals that poverty, slavery, and exploitation of the earth’s resources are not a sign of a broken system. The system is working just as it was designed. And this is the very thing that God threatens very harsh judgement upon.” (p. 27)

And this is exactly what we saw play out this week.


We, who are inheritors of the trauma that Rome inflicted, trauma which has passed through generations of exploitation, colonization, slavery, dehumanization, and violence, we carry Empire so deeply within our own flesh that we cannot see it in our own lives. It is so familiar that in the mirror of this text, we look and only see our culture, our lives, ourselves, even our own God, remade in our own image of hierarchy, and exclusion, and fear.

For this week, we saw a carefully- constructed system work exactly as it was designed to work: from the jurist quoted in the leaked SCOTUS decision – whose belief that white men owned women of any race, as fathers or as husbands or as owners outright, reigned in both British and American common law to the point where it was codified in the constitution’s erasure of both women and people of color as individuals with rights – to the culmination of a carefully crafted political strategy: the brainchild of Jerry Falwell and racist political strategists that exploited the question of abortion, not to care for children
but as a red herring to create a voting block propelled by fear and gruesome images specifically to maintain the power of those same white men endowed by the constitution with ultimate power. These are the men who ran political campaigns “on abortion” so as to gain the political power to maintain segregation academies, and racist homeowners associations, and private prisons incarcerating mostly black men, where their labor could be exploited and wealth could be made off of their dehumanized bodies.

It is the economics of Empire that drive the forces that would force a woman to use her body to nurture another, even against her will, because Empire uses the bodies of those who are not in power to maintain the authority of those for whom the system is designed in the first place. It is the logic of Empire that maintains misogyny, racism, ableism, classism; the oppressive structures that continue to exploit and dehumanize,
that call certain bodies – explicitly or implicitly – worthless and disposable because they do not serve the ideology of Empire, and that convince us by their very pervasiveness that the violence of the system is actually the peace we all seek, rather than the terror we choose not to see

And now we, who stand before the throne, who look upon, not a lion but a lamb: we are called to a new vision, to a new way. We are called to consider whom we expect to see before the throne of God, sealed for salvation? Is it the twelve tribes, in the utter perfection of square numbers multiplied? I suspect that of we answer honestly, this is indeed our expectation.

ow shall we react, when the multitude stand before us: the ones Empire used, discarded; stripped of their rights and told us to fear, and hate, until we were willing to shout “crucify” for the sake of keeping violence out of our own lives and homes?

How shall we react when we see the poor, the incarcerated, the unsheltered, the addicted – when we see the woman who had an abortion because she simply did not want to have a baby – united in the belovedness of a God who refuses the ways of violence and Empire?

For the mirror that Revelation holds is for us, every bit as much as it ever was for the oppressed churches of Rome. Their choice is ours, as well, and it is a choice that we must continually make – and strive to protect – even in the shadow of Empire.

CW: Violence against women

It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful… So David sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. -2 Samuel 11: 2,4a

Every 68 seconds person is sexually assaulted in this country.

Take a moment with that fact. Every 68 seconds.  90% of the victims are women. 66% of assaults will not be reported to law enforcement; some for fear of reprisal by the assailant or those who support him, some because the victim does not trust that anything will come of reporting, some because they know that reporting will force them to describe the assault, and relive it, compounding an already traumatic event and adding the trauma of the damage it often does to a victim’s reputation. Of the third that are reported: 16% (so 5% of the total) will lead to an arrest, 9% (2.8% of total) will lead to a felony conviction, and 8% (2.5%) will lead to jail time for the assailant.

One in every six cis women will be assaulted in their lifetimes, while nearly half of all trans women will be.

Why?

We live in the grip of a deeply rooted cultural misogyny, which disbelieves the very concept of rape and violence against women, in the ways that it most often occurs: among people who know each other. We are trained from a young age, by our prevalent literature and media, to believe that no doesn’t mean no, really. We are taught that it’s romantic to keep chasing the girl who said no, until she inevitably changes her mind. We are taught not to trust a woman’s no, because it’s just flirting: it’s the basic plot of most rom-coms.

On a deeper level than entertainment, however, we are culturally ingrained to see men as full, complex human beings, while we consider women solely through a male gaze: by their relationships to and with the men around them. Women are reduced to being sisters, daughters, mothers; objects of service or of desire; but never individuals in their own right, with complex identities and agency of their own. Notably, I must add, in addition to the objectification we impose upon all women, we are conditioned to see trans women as threats – living, breathing, walking threats – both to the concept of masculinity itself and to the femininity imposed by white patriarchy.

It is the circular logic of rape culture: objectifying women and denying their humanity, even as we hold them responsible for the violence they experience and for the responses that they elicit from those around them. We prioritize his intent over the impact that it has on her life. We ascribe motivations that allow us to maintain our comfort in the status quo, pretending that if he didn’t intend it, it wasn’t rape, whether or not she gave meaningful consent. We talk about his bright shining future, and about sordid past – indeed, we go digging for anything in her actions that will allow us to continue to see the assailant as the good guy – or even the victim; anything that will allow us to believe his word over hers. We hold men’s sexuality as good and natural, but women’s as bad, dirty, and dangerous. Boys will be boys, after all, but girls shall be either saint or slut – considered in the same way as a car that loses value the moment it leaves the lot: an object of conditional value.

For our culture holds women to impossible, dehumanizing standards which boil down, when all is said and sorted, to a continuing belief that she only exists in relation to a man. There remains, even now, after waves of feminism, an undercurrent of considering women property. We do well to remember that this was a legal reality until very recently – within the lifetimes of all Boomer, and even some Gen X women, credit cards, mortgages, car loans, were not available without a male co-signer. Pregnancy was considered grounds for termination of employment. It is not hyperbole to say that women did not exist as independent individuals; structures that should have given independence were contorted to maintain women only as daughters, wives, mothers; as property under the control of men. We see echoes of this in the growth of the incel movement – the clear belief that all men deserve sex, and are within their rights to take and use women sexually didn’t come out of nowhere, but finds its roots in the same misogyny whose roots still exert a chokehold on us all.

What is this to do with David and Bathsheba? Everything.

David was the king of Israel, the war leader and hero who had accrued great power with little responsibility. He was not one to be denied. So when he sent “messengers” to Bathsheba, these palace messengers were, for all intents and purposes, soldiers, armed at least with the divine authority given to David as king of Israel, but also very likely with swords. There was no choice for Bathsheba in this encounter. Men had been sent to fetch her, not to ask her; even in our toned-down language there is a threat of violence inherent in this encounter. Bathsheba was fetched – a word we use for objects, not for humans – and brought within the locus of power of the king, into his own palace, from which there would have been no escape. David saw her, desired her, took her because he had the power; because she was an object, a piece of property.

In short: David raped Bathsheba.

We don’t see it, call it such: the NRSV from which I pulled this passage put in the header, “David commits adultery with Bathsheba.” But adultery is an act that happens between consenting adults. So no. This is rape. No matter how deeply we are trained to see it as altercation between two men – as an issue between David and Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, this story is not about who had the rights to a woman, or who deserved to be in her bed. Yet this is the common presentation of this story – it’s even the reason David gets in any trouble at all – because we are caught in the ancient practice of silencing women’s voices within our sacred stories; of refusing their perspective, their truth, their humanity, especially when it calls out the behavior of a man whom we want to be the good guy. Especially when her story distracts us with complications we don’t want to deal with, in a narrative that we want to be simple.

So we explain the complications away: it wasn’t wrong then, that was just the way things were, we say. But no: even things that were culturally acceptable can still be wrong. There is a difference between descriptions of how things were and judgments about whether that was okay; I don’t think that the norms of the day made Bathsheba feel better, or any more in control of her own body, or any less violated and traumatized. I don’t think knowing that “that was just the way things were” helped Bathsheba any more than it has helped any of the countless victims of violence for whom that justification remains truthful today.

But still: we explain away our discomfort. Bathsheba became queen! the mother of Solomon! And truly I don’t know what we hope to accomplish with this one: it only makes her one more of David’s women, used and discarded, set up to fight amongst themselves for power through their sons, because they had none for themselves. These are the women who remind us that becoming someone’s property – their spouse or significant other – is not consent. It was not consent then, and it is not consent now.

And still: we try to explain away the story, we don’t want to deal with the story, because it’s all still true, it’s all still real now. And if we can explain away David’s behavior, if we can minimize and rationalize his act of violence in some boys will be boys, “she was clearly asking for it” sort of dismissive way, then we don’t need to examine ourselves. We don’t need to acknowledge the current reality of this ancient text.

Because David still among us. He is still the boy hero. He is still the great white hope. And we continue to make the story about him, whether his name is Brock Turner or Brett Kavanagh. We continue to focus on the possibilities for his future, the good he might yet do. We continue to erase the violence, to silence the one violated, to remove her responses, her reactions, her voice. We continue to remake her in the image of the demon that is all that we despise, and thereby compound the violence that has already been done to her,  even before we start to use our own voices, our own biases to blame her for her own situation, for having dared to challenge the patriarchal idol whom we continue to worship.

Because of course, Bathsheba shouldn’t have been naked, we say. She asked for it: what else could she have expected, bathing in a place where someone might see her? This is now such a culturally ingrained response that we don’t even question it, or the damage that responses like that do. We don’t acknowledge the fact that they’re one of the reasons that women do not report sexual assault, knowing that she will have her every move, every relationship picked apart and laid bare for the judgment of all. Knowing that that the reprisal for speaking up will be every bit as traumatic as the assault itself. Because if even Bathsheba – simply doing her religious duty, in her own house – can still have this assault written out of the story, we already start at a disadvantage.

For Bathsheba also continues to exist, in a huge number of women trying to claim agency and full humanity in a culture that has already set the stage for the violence of forcing upon her the responsibility for another person’s feelings and subsequent actions. Our culture continues the tradition of holding the victim, rather than the rapist, accountable for any given assault. Our culture violates women even before their bodies are touched; it is violence because this very instinct in us – to assume that her way of being caused his actions – is dehumanizing, is objectifying, reduces a woman to the covetous gaze of her assailant which we too easily justify as normal, as natural. To do otherwise would be to upend everything we have long understood about how the world works.

To do otherwise would be to change our very ways of being in this world.

To do otherwise would force us to actually be the church; to actually live the Gospel in the world.

Sundays like this one, which the United Church of Christ calls “Breaking the Silence Sunday,” have come into being to give us – as communities of faith – the necessary swift kick in the rear that we have long needed in order to address topics we often find uncomfortable. And we, over here in the progressive church, need that kick, as often as not. Because we have become known for not making waves, not speaking up in any meaningful way. We go to women’s marches, we profess our feminism, we hire female clergy… but not nearly often enough do we tackle the texts that make these very civil rights actions necessary, the ones that created and informed the society that we now wish to change.

The world around us extols the Davids of our world, holds them up as victims of cancel culture and attention seeking harlots. The world around us shames sexually-active women, blames victims, and callously retraumatizes survivors with every new sensationalized trial in which a woman has to justify her every choice, her previous partners, clothing, or alcohol consumption, in order for there to be a chance she might see her rapist held accountable. The world around us tells women to lock all their windows and doors, to walk with their keys between their fingers, to be continually aware of their surroundings. The world around us tells women not to get raped, but it never tells men not to rape, because somewhere not-so-deep-down we believe that David is the hero who deserved his pleasure, and Bathsheba was just the means to an end.

Who will stand up and say, “No More?”

Sundays like this one remind the church that our job has always been to stand up, face to face with the world, and say no: there is another way, a better way, a way that is rooted in justice, in love. Our job has always been to speak against the world’s shame and condemnation; to say what the world refuses: that we believe survivors.

We believe you, when you tell us you were assaulted.

We believe you, even when you don’t report.

We believe you, even when you were drinking.

We believe you, no matter what you wore, or where you walked.

The violence that you experienced is not your fault. It is not your fault. It never was your fault. Because you were never responsible for anyone else’s actions, no matter what the world says to you.

And the fact that it took a resolution before the national gathering of our denomination; the fact that it took the implementation of an official Sunday for many, many progressive churches to even dare to bring any of this up is both our condemnation and our chance for grace.

For we should know this by now: that our bible keeps our faith focused on how we treat the vulnerable, from the law of Moses, with its emphasis on caring for the widow, the orphan, and the refugee, through the writings of so many prophets who hold up to us the mirror of our own self-indulgence, our own comfort, the idols we have made in our own power-hungry, patriarchal image. And we who are the church, who profess to live by the gospel, we are specifically called to lift up the powerless, to level the playing field, to engage in rebalancing, autonomy, dignity for all. We are called to learn from the teacher whose one attempt at victim-blaming (of a Syro-Phonecian woman on her own home turf) ended really badly for him: ended with Jesus having to reverse course and treat her as fully human. (Gospel of Mark, y’all. Good story.) We are called to see that the way we treat those whom the world dehumanizes is the way that we treat the living Christ, and to take seriously all that that means in our daily lives.

Our church – the practice of Christianity in the world – has long been tempted away from the gospel message of servant leadership and a justice-focused kin-dom. We have long been seduced by empire: by the very hunger for power that crucified Christ. And since the beginning of Christianity, we have allowed misogyny to continue the practice of crucifixion, of taking power by silencing, using, dehumanizing the voices that question the dominion of the powerful – the idolatry of cis white masculinity as the universal human experience.

But we are not called to crucifixion.

We are called to resurrection: that new reality first preached by women, yet into which we are all invited. We are called to resurrection: to new life, to kin-dom life which removes human concepts of power, levels the playing field, changes the narrative until we see David’s abuse of power – his rape of Bathsheba – not as part of the glory days of the kingdom of Israel but as the very corruption of God’s people that God had feared, when Israel demanded a king in the first place. We are called to live that kin-dom, not in some remote afterlife, but here, now: a world in which women are seen as autonomous individuals, fully and completely human, with all of the messy complexity that we automatically afford to men. A world in which a woman’s worth goes beyond her roles as daughter, partner, mother; goes beyond our antiquated notions of who is really a woman – which is just a particularly cruel way of dehumanizing trans women and making the violence against them more acceptable. But we are called to a world in which no woman (and trans women are women) is held responsible  for the violence with which she is treated; a world, indeed, where a woman could walk naked through the streets knowing that she would be safe – as some male performance artists have done in New York and San Francisco, for example. We are called, by a justice-led gospel, to create a world in which consent – meaningful consent, not just a lack of “no” but an active and enthusiastic “yes” – is the basis for all sexuality. Because we are called to a world in which power is not wielded like a weapon, but harnessed to lift up, to be present alongside, to create community in which a woman is not asked to give up her future to trauma for the sake of securing the financial or political future of her rapist.

The Gospel calls us to a life that the Christian church has barely lived in its institutional life, yet the promise is before us that such a life is possible, that the ways of the world, which deal violence and death on a regular basis, are not the only ways. The violence of empire is not the final word. And what we begin, on Sundays like this – when we as the Church begin to hear our silent complicity and the call of God’s grace – we stand in the first faint light of the promised kin-dom – in the hope and covenant of God’s beloved community – listening to the call to move forward together into a resurrection world. 

Confession time: I have always found this one of the hardest Sundays to preach. For years, it was because of all the funerals I had done in a given year. I was always so aware of the grief present in the room with s. It felt almost cruel to talk about the miracle of the resurrection – of all of the grieving disciples getting their teacher back, when so many are still coming to terms with the inevitability, the irrevocability of death. And by that logic, in so many ways this one Easter should be the hardest: standing here with you, in this space, for the first time in two years. Two years that have brought death on a scale that our brains cannot fully comprehend, leaving us with a deep cultural trauma that we will not soon overcome; a grief that no amount of platitudes could ever assuage.

And yet, I find that this year is the year that Easter makes the most sense, the year that it slides so much more clearly into the context of the entire Gospel, and of the world as we know it. Because we have had years, now, of oscillating between Good Friday and Holy Saturday, watching and grieving as the Body of Christ is crucified over and over again. And so all of the easy explanations, all of the standard theologies, give way to the heartbreak we have lived and the promises we need to hear.

Because maybe, in this time of grief and trauma we can finally stop saying that God is responsible for death?  I know that it can bring a sense of order when we are flailing to figure out a world that feels scary and chaotic, but if it were true, then I for one really struggle to understand why we would be sitting here worshiping someone capable of massacring humanity wholesale. That’s not the act of a loving God – a God who lives in faithful covenant with us throughout time. This is the sort of theology that is always around, that whole “God needed another angel” sort of platitude that we’ve all heard, but never more so that at Easter, when tradition tells us that God is not only responsible for death but that God is actively responsible for killing God’s own child.

And y’all: that is horrifying. That isn’t love. That isn’t grace. That isn’t mercy, or justice, or compassion. And therefore it isn’t God.

So let me just say this, once and for all: God did not kill Jesus. God did not sacrifice Jesus. God is not a murderer.  And all of the substitutionary and penal atonement theologies that we’ve all heard – the ones that talk about blood being required as payment for sin?

All. of. that. is. garbage. Throw it all out. All of it.

How do I know it’s garbage? Because this sort of theology makes God over in our image, rather than directing our attention to the image of God that is within us. This sort of theology takes Easter out of the context of the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, of all of the ways that he tried to help us back into the covenant that God made with humanity… which never involved killing people. Even Jesus, who is equally covered by the sixth commandment.

Throughout the Gospels, we hear about how Jesus moves among us, shifting our focus from our own selves onto those whom we would rather exclude. Jesus shows us ways of living that fly in the face of all of our common sense. And so he doesn’t shame the 5000 hungry folk for not being prepared, for not having planned ahead: he feeds them – and feeds them well. He doesn’t blame the suffering for their lot, or the ill for their afflictions; he simply heals the blind man, the leper, the demon-possessed. He doesn’t punish the folks who caused harm by collaborating with the occupying forces; he gives them a chance to do better, to repent of the harms they have done. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus holds up a mirror to humanity, asks us to look closely, to acknowledge how our actions show forth our priorities and demonstrate more clearly than our words what it is that we worship. Do we let folks go hungry or unsheltered because we love strict rules more than we do the lives of human beings? Do we turn people away because we love our comfort more than their need for community? Do we dehumanize and use people as commodities, as object lessons, as the projection screen for all our fears and desires? Throughout the Gospels, Jesus asks us to examine whether we worship God or our own power, or our own comfort. Jesus asks us to consider whether the ways that we treat those we love the least reflect the way we would treat the incarnate God. Jesus asks us to reflect and then to choose how we will respond to what we see reflected back at us, in ourselves, in the world, in the dream that God has for all of Creation.

The story of the Gospels is not just the story of Jesus, after all; it’s not a biography of a long-past time. Rather, it is the story of how humanity responds to a human God, how humanity responds to the embodiment of love, throughout time.

And we all know how the story ends.

The theology that God sacrificed Jesus out of love for us all is a human conceit that allows us to hold the Gospels at arm’s length, that allows us to refuse the mirror that Jesus holds up to us. The theology that God murdered Jesus so that our sin would be forgiven sets God on our vengeful, self-interested level, such that we can then justify the tremendous cruelty that we are so good at. It allows us the idea that suffering brings salvation, so, for example, the violence done to native populations – colonization, removal to reservations, residential schools, genocide – can be named as salvific, rather than murderous. Likewise the maintenance of the poor in poverty, the exclusion of those struggling with mental illness and substance use, the punishment of bodies that do not fit into human-created parameters that we call “normal” or “good:” these are the toxic outgrowths of the idols we have created. These are the marks of an abusive, gaslighting god who is simply the reflection of human desire and fear, rather than the God who believes us capable of seeing beyond our own limited scope.

As my Methodist colleague, Rev Ben Cremer, wrote this week:
We want the warhorse. Jesus rides a donkey. 
We want the eagle. The Holy Spirit descends as a dove.
We want to take up swords. Jesus takes up a cross.
We want the roaring lion. God comes to us as a lamb.
We keep trying to arm God. God keeps trying to disarm us.

God keeps trying to disarm us: to turn us away from violence, to show us the power of vulnerable love, which might make our hearts bleed but which is always more powerful than the violence we so often choose, which spills the blood of another.

Ultimately, the story of this week is not about how God killed Jesus: it’s about how we did. Because the mirror that he held before us – the relationships to which he called us, the love that he showed all around us – was too threatening. was too uncomfortable. was too overwhelming to our need for order, stability, hierarchy, and power. As much as we want to distance ourselves from this story – to make it for us, and not about us – these past two years show us inescapably the continuing crucifixion of the Body of Christ; the ways that we would rather justify acts of violence on the basis of race, of gender, of age, of immune status; the ways that we use bodies to prop up an unjust economy, to rehash all of our trauma, to hold onto our idols of control in the face of unimaginable loss.

The Gospels are not ancient stories that tell us about our past. They are the ongoing narrative of the human condition. They are the mirror that continues to reflect our present: our fears and our hopes, our belief that if we don’t care for ourselves first and foremost, no one else ever will. The Gospels remind us of the human reality that we are all, at varying points every. single. character in this terrible, violent drama of God incarnate inviting us to a new reality, and our ongoing need to make the decision, in every moment. We need to make the decision about whether we’re going to follow; whether we’re going to live into the disarmed, vulnerable, grace-filled love that marks the presence of God in this world.

Which makes Easter, after all, very easy to preach. It’s easy to talk about Easter when it’s not about violent acts resulting in salvation, or this one group of people who got really lucky and found out that death wasn’t actually final after all – unlike the rest of us.

Easter, it turns out, is far easier to preach when it is simply the end result of the fullness of the Gospel: the message and ministry of Jesus alongside the fears and anxieties of humanity, pushed to their most extreme end. Easter is easier to preach when we let go of wanting the triumph – the final vanquishing of the powers of hell, the once and done battle for salvation – and we embrace the knowledge that our humanity doesn’t exclude us from God’s love. Even if we weren’t the ones standing at the foot of the cross. Even if we weren’t the ones going up at dawn to anoint the body. Even if we’re hiding in an upper room. Even if we denied Jesus to save our own skins, or if we sold him out for a handful of silver.

Even then.

Because maybe, despite what orthodoxy and tradition tell us, the resurrection isn’t about a violent God whose traumatic death turns into haha just kidding nevermind, but rather about the fact that even our deepest fears and our most selfish, violent tendencies can’t break God’s abiding love for us. Maybe it’s about the fact that God is going to slip into our shame, our fear, our denial, our disbelief, and give us another chance to follow; another chance to love one another as God has loved us; another chance to inhabit the eternal life that begins, not after we die, but the minute we choose human complexity over rigid rules, curiosity over judgment, self-awareness over trauma responses, love over violence.

Because Jesus showed us that even pushed to its extreme, love will overcome violence; that the love that God has for us, individually and collectively, is such that there is nothing that we can do that can ever break it.

For God is with us. God is in the bodies of the crucified. God is in the love that bears witness to horror. God is in the courage that risks itself to care for victims.

and

God is the presence that calls us out of our fear. God is the compassion that calls us back to hope. God is the forgiveness that reminds us we are not the worst things we have done. God is the second chance. And the third. And the hundredth. God is the resurrection: the life that is always opening before us, if we are willing to perceive it.

And it turns out that’s not such a hard thing to preach, on Easter or any other time in our messy, grace-filled human lives.

Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl, for it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. -Genesis 16:2

This is one of those stories that are just… uncomfortable.

 God promised Sarah children, but she’s like 80, so she forces her servant into a sexual relationship with her husband for the sole purpose of getting her pregnant with a child she won’t get to keep. It’s one of those stories that no amount of  “that’s just how they did things then” or “this was just about Sarah’s lack of faith” can possibly make better, because I doubt any of it was of any comfort to Hagar in the moment that she was being raped.  

It’s uncomfortable, because often, we turn to the Bible for guidance in how to live our lives, or in how to follow the way that God has laid before us. And this story… well, it certainly shouldn’t be used as a guide, but history tells us it has been. And that, perhaps, is the point after all.

This isn’t the story of one moment, among three people; it’s the story of how humans treat each other, use each other, hurt each other to get what we think we deserve.

There was a scene in one of my favorite children’s books, The Diamond in the Window, in which the main characters are invited to step through a series of magical mirrors, set out in pairs, each reflecting a particular version of themselves; each representing the choices that rise up before them: to lie or to tell the truth; to be oneself or to try to conform. The images, the mirrors, that play to our fears and insecurities (the story tells us) narrow our paths, while the ones that reflect self-love, courage, and vulnerability open before us in limitless possibility.

So many of the stories that our scriptures present us seem often to me like looking in one of those magical mirrors; while sometimes we see them as “examples of how God wants us to be,” perhaps they function better as reflections of the choices that lie before us, and the paths we choose to walk? And, indeed, what it was that put us on that path in the first place. Because often, these stories – and particularly this interaction between Sarah and Hagar, do not take place in a vacuum. Though the bible doesn’t spend a lot of time musing on the inner, emotional life of its characters, the story of all that comes before this moment informs and deepens our understanding, perhaps even clarifies the reflection we see of ourselves in this ancient story.

Because we have known Sarai a long time by now; indeed, since she was Abram’s sister, not yet his wife. We have seen her follow Abram out of the land where they had been living, possibly for generations; we have seen them bury their father, and still keep traveling; all of it with no sense of what this felt like for Sarai who had not, herself, heard from the God who called them forth. Perhaps most crucially for this story, we have followed the couple down into Egypt, where Abram, in fear for his own life refused to acknowledge their marriage and stood by while Sarai was taken to the harem of the Pharaoh, who had decided that her beauty gave him rights to her body. The scenario rendered Abram wealthy but God stepped in on the side of Sarai – the victim in all this – so she was released, and they could leave Egypt together.

But one has to wonder, in all this, how Sarai felt about the wealth that Abram claimed – all of it bought at the cost of her humanity? How did it feel to look about, and see her worth quantified in sheep, oxen, donkeys, camels, and slaves? One has to wonder how Sarah felt about being put in an exploitative situation, a traumatic situation, by her husband, her brother; about his willingness to risk her life to save his own? Sarai, in this moment, is stripped of her humanity, her agency; though God steps in Sarai does not forget. Sarai cannot forget. Because she returns to Abram, to the person she should have been able to trust; to the person who sold her out, who is now wealthy with the spoils she had made possible. Sarai is not – cannot be – the same person who initially went down to Egypt. She has been abandoned by her husband – her only family. She has lived on the cusp of violation, not knowing she would be saved.

The Sarai who comes back is a woman who knows the pain of trauma, and the further pain of trauma swept under the rug, as she makes a life with one whom she now knows will care for himself ahead of her, will enrich himself at her expense, if possible. So Sarah’s pain is set aside, shoved down, ignored; metastasizing, festering, becoming what trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem terms “dirty pain.” Dirty pain is the kind that is not processed, the kind we push away because there is no room for its discomfort, the kind we don’t have the space or the safety to feel, let alone deal with. Dirty pain is the sort that comes out as anger, as cruelty; it is when we long to inflict the pain we feel on others as well, so that we are not alone in our suffering.

Dirty pain, unprocessed trauma, is what takes a slave girl and forces her into pregnancy.

Can you imagine what Sarah saw, when she looked at Hagar? a young woman possibly as beautiful as Sarai herself was at that age? Can you imagine what Sarah heard, when she heard her speak in the language of the people by whom she had been kept for “use” by Pharaoh? In the accents that would trigger flashbacks and trauma responses; that would take all of her unprocessed, dirty pain and bring it right back to the surface?   Can you imagine Sarai, likely encouraged by her husband to enjoy their new wealth, ever being able to forget that that wealth – that those slaves who looked and sounded like her own victimization – had been purchased by her body, her sexuality, without her consent? And seeing Hagar – the tables turned, the power dynamics reversed – can’t you imagine all of that pain, all of that trauma pouring out? 

Sarah$i uses Hagar in almost the exact way that she herself was nearly used. Sarai inflicts upon Hagar all of the pain that she herself has borne for years. But it doesn’t make her feel better. It doesn’t make the pain go away, it simply sets her up once again in trauma, in powerlessness, in anger, in pain. And this time, God goes to Hagar, not to Sarah. God goes to the one being traumatized, rather than the one acting out her trauma on a powerless body.  Because dirty pain might be the reason for cruelty, but it is never the justification, and God stands with the victims of violence – as Sarai would do well to remember.

And indeed, perhaps this is the lesson for us all.

We watch Sarai’s story play out, in all its pain and dysfunction. And we hear the beginnings of Hagar’s – this woman who stands alone in her naming of God. And we are called to wonder if the trauma continues through Hagar, or if she finds healing despite the horrors she faces. We are called to wonder if the pain she endures is pain she will inflict, or pain she will try to spare those who come after.

We watch Sarai’s story play out, and we are called to wonder not only how Hagar handled her own trauma, but how we will handle our own; to look closely at the reflection that these stories give us and choose whether we will inflict our own unresolved trauma – our own dirty pain – upon those around us, or whether we will choose to feel our hurt instead of burying it; to acknowledge it, and the harm done, in the clean pain that doesn’t erupt out of us unawares but which gets felt, processed, metabolized, and eventually healed. We watch Sarai’s story, and dare to reflect on our own: on the ways that this pandemic has damaged our spirits, the ways the grief continues to live and move within us, the hard work of feeling all of the fear, the anger, the pain with which we have lived, until it marks every moment of our lives. And we get to choose, with the guidance of scripture, how we will respond. Will we, indeed, be like Sarai, with pain we shove so deep that it flies out sideways, until others hurt as much as we do? Will we continue the cycle of trauma, choosing to abuse what power we have rather than risking the possibility that we might again be powerless?

How do we respond, when faced with the mirror that uncomfortable stories hold up? When we stop giving them simplistic interpretations about how much faith any one character has; when we are reminded that we don’t have to travel backwards in time, don’t have to figure out “how they did things then,” in order to find our place within the tale – in order to hear God speaking to us, here and now? Our God, who stands on the side of those who are abused and exploited; our God, who cares for those who are in pain and seeks healing and wholeness for us all?

Because the guidance to be found in this passage is not simply about taking stories at face value and suggesting that because the foundational figures of our faith behaved badly, it is divinely sanctioned or justified for us to do likewise. Rather it is about seeing where God is, when terrible things happen, and situating ourselves on the side with God. Which is not to say that we should make ourselves victims, but that when we see oppression, when we see exploitation, when we see dirty pain being flung about by those who have known trauma, or when we feel the impulse to make others endure what we have endured, we are called to remember where in that scenario God will stand, and to do our best to stand on the side of God, whether that means doing all that is necessary to acknowledge and process our own pain, or doing all that we can to disrupt the cycles of trauma both individually and systemically.

Because the uncomfortable stories, when they become a mirror to us, show us the abiding love of God which might not be immediately apparent in the narrative. And it invites us to find it in our own lives as well.  For where God stands, there is healing; the clean pain of metabolized trauma and growth. Where God stands is the beginning of the kindom, opening before our reflections in limitless possibility.

Christianity has a status quo problem.

It shouldn’t be surprising: it’s a human institution which often forgets it’s supposed to be seeking God and tries instead to create God, to manage God, to put God in a little white box with a steeple on top. It’s a funny thing, for something that started out as a movement – by definition, something flexible, responsive, growing, shifting, changing. But growth can be uncomfortable, which is something I don’t need to tell all y’all; coming out invariably involves growth, some discomfort, shifts and changes in our lives and in our relationships.

But the thing is, unlike the current church – Big-C church, American Christianity broadly – when we come out, it’s not so much out of a closet as out of the institutions, the systems, the expectations that try to keep us within a status quo that cannot possibly fit us. We come out of the self-justifying, self-replicating paradigm of “this is just how things are,” the one that tries to change us, convert us, silence us ion order to maintain itself in its comfort.

The irony, of course is that when the church turns inward; when it prioritizes the institution over the movement it commits an act of profound harm, not only to us, but to itself – because it was never supposed to be a static institution, never supposed to be a place of certainty about what God wants instead of a place where we try to find out who God is.

In so many ways, the church needs the queers, though I’m not always sure it deserves our energy. But in so many instances in my life I have found communities that look more like Jesus among the queers than in the institution. Maybe because those of us who have had to break away from institutional expectations, pressures, or certainties know better than many how necessary that community is. Like when I look back to the 1980s, to the lesbians who nursed their dying gay friends when no one else would, or when I look at the chosen families who stepped in to support each other, help raise each other’s children, because the families of origin refused; when I look at those who have been out for a while taking the newly-out transwoman to buy her first bra or teaching her how to do her hair, then I’m pretty sure I’m looking at the divine, right here, trying to break out into this world, begging us to see beyond the expectations, beyond the institutions, and into a love that gathers everyone in  and says “it’s going to be okay, I’m here, you’re not alone.” 

And it breaks my heart, when the church refuses to be that place. It breaks my heart, when it hurts the people who try to get it to be  what it has so long promised to be.

The church needs the queers, in ways it cannot even comprehend.

It needs the folks who disrupt an institution mired in the ideals of the 1950s, with all its white cis-hetero normativity standing in the place where faith should be. The church needs the queers, and yet I will never ask you to go back to places that have hurt you, because you are far more than sacrificial lambs and it is not your job to fix the institutions that have done you such harm, individually or systemically.

So for those of you who are still Christian, who are trying to shift us all from institution to movement and from places of certainty to places of growth and community: thank you. You are the face of the holy, no matter what folks might tell you.

And for those of you who have been hurt, who have rejected this religion: I am sorry. I am sorry on behalf of the church which has sacrificed you for the sake of its own comfort. You deserve better, for you, too, are the face of the holy, beautiful and beloved.

And for us all, I implore you: no matter what your faith, what your tradition; no matter your dealings with American Christianity, keep showing us how it should be done. Keep being community together. Lift one another up, stand with one another in grief, care for one another when the hurt comes flying. Love one another in all the ways you needed to be loved. Because you, beloved community, have the power to change the world, no matter what the institutions may tell you.

This week… ugh. this week.

How does anyone preach on a week like this one has been? what could anyone possibly have to say? It’s the question that pastors around the nation faced, as we sat with events that seemed bigger than any words we could possibly find. Ultimately, of course, the response was the same one that we come to every time it feels as though we’ve finally reached the level of un-preachability: we preach the Gospel. We trust that the texts will have their message for us, even when we don’t have the words.

This week’s texts are timely, but I think most would be in this book whose focus lands so squarely on justice. John the Baptist stands in the wilderness, preahcing a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In John’s preaching, repentance is necessary. But John’s repentance isn’t about going into a room to pray in solitude and ask God’s forgiveness. John calls the people to a public act, a deliberate act for which one has to leave the known places of their lives, and enter the wilderness. John calls the people, calls us, out of our comfort zones, out of the places we have created to protect ourselves and all that we love. Repentance calls us to a place of vulnerability, as we engage with discomfort within and around ourselves.

We talked last week about perfection not being required, or even desirable, as humans seek to interact with the divine. God does not need us to be perfect, but calls us continually to grow, and develop, and become more than what we were yesterday. And as good as it is to hear that God does not require us to be perfect, there is still a big difference between doing our work imperfectly and consciously committing acts of violence. If we define sin by its literal translation from the Greek – “missing the mark,” you can imagine an analogy in archery – there is still a big difference between not getting a bullseye and not even aiming for the target in the first place. Perfection may not be what God desires in us, but neither does God want grace to become a license for evil, whether that looks like acts of violence or it looks like the refusal to stand up against injustice. Grace is not our “get out of jail free” card: grace is what makes it worth our while to repent, to acknowledge where we’ve fallen short or screwed up and to commit ourselves to doing better.

And that’s just on God’s side.

In this story in the Gospel, both John and Jesus were equally aware that their calls to repentance were not simply about human relationships with the divine, but about human life in community with one another. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the full knowledge that true forgiveness – true reconciliation and healing – requires accountability, empathy, and remorse. And that a community that cannot commit to those principles will eventually collapse into violence.

There have been a lot of calls since the presidential election for unity and healing, for forgiveness and moving on. Indeed, even in the past few days I have encountered multiple instances of people who expect that Christian love means giving a pass to those who have done violence. I don’t know where or how Christianity substituted the seeking of justice with the concept of a niceness that doesn’t ruffle any feathers, but I do know that no one clued in either John the Baptist, or Jesus himself, about that shift. Because all those calls for unity and healing, without the simultaneous call for justice and repentance, stand in direct opposition to the Gospel which we profess to follow. It is worth noting that John got arrested–and killed– for his work, because the calls to repentance that he proclaimed loudly enough to bring crowds from Jerusalem to the Jordan would have completely overturned the balance of power at the time. His work ran so counter to the ideas of calm and niceness and comfort that those in authority needed to remove him, silence him… and any who might come after him. They needed to put the oppressed firmly in their place in order to maintain the status quo, in order to maintain their own power.

Because the faith which sent John out into the wilderness – the faith which with he called us all to repentance – is the faith that seeks truth over civility, vulnerability over power, justice over comfort. It is the faith that asks us to repent. It is the faith that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable with the fallout of their actions and their silences. The faith to which John called us, the faith which we follow in the person of Jesus, is still the very faith that rejects the emptiness of unrepentant niceness and forgiveness without consequence.

In what has since become a statement of incredible irony, the author JK Rowling, in the Harry Potter series,    noted that to commit acts of violence is to tear apart one’s soul. (Of course, she explicitly said that murder tears the soul, but since the books repeatedly lump the acts of murder, enslavement, and torture together as equally “unforgiveable” and meriting the same consequences, I’m going to go ahead and suggest that she meant that all acts of human violence are equally soul-tearing… did I mention irony?) And in this – unlike so much else she has recently said – I think she is right: the damage that we inflict upon others damages us, tears us apart, within our selves and from our communities. The only way, she notes, to repair that damage – the only way to heal a soul torn by its own violence – is to feel remorse, to feel the harm that we have done to another within our own selves. The only way to heal is to have compassion – literally, to feel with – the person we have harmed, a concept Rowling herself would do well to embody in her dealings with trans folk. She doesn’t use these exact words, but Rowling’s concept of healing is remarkably like the Gospel insistence upon repentance for the forgiveness of sins: a willingness to take responsibility, not only in words but to the core of ourselves, for the violence and harms we have caused, or even the ones we have allowed to happen before us; a willingness not only to take responsibility, but to repent before those whom we have harmed: to name, and feel, and own the deep and lasting damage that our violence, or our silence before it, have done to real people who are supposed to be our neighbors.

Because we cannot say that we didn’t know: only that we refused to see.

The acts of terror and violence this week happened on the day of Epiphany, and in that we must hear our call. The feast of the Epiphany marks the arrival of the Magi to honor the Christ child: it is a day, a season of illumination, of revelation, and letting ourselves see what is right before us. For we remember that the Magi expected to find the baby in Jerusalem and allowed their human understandings to send them off course. Their encounter with the child opened their hearts to the truths they had not understood: the power that Herod would not willingly give up, the violence he would be willing to commit in that process. Epiphany is that moment in our liturgical year when we set aside our understandings of the world as it is, and allow our experience of the Christ child, the reality of God-made-flesh, to break us open to all that we had refused to acknowledge before. This season of illumination throws the world around us into stark relief, changes our perspectives, holds up a mirror before us, and demands our accountability – demands that we take a good, long, honest, vulnerable look at ourselves, at our actions and our refusals to act, and all of the consequences of our deeds. The events of this week are a powerful mirror, setting before us the sins of this nation, of this society, and we are called, as surely as if John the Baptist’s voice rang among us, to go out into the wilderness – the places we are afraid to travel – to step willingly into our vulnerability, and to repent. Because the actions of those who committed violence out of fear of losing their power are a reflection of our unwillingness to believe what our marginalized neighbors have long been begging us to hear: that our nation has forever been one that upholds the power of whiteness, of maleness, of Christian nationalism with tremendous violence and utter impunity.

The events of this week show us, with a terrifying clarity, that white nationalists can plan and organize an insurrection (they had shirts printed, this wasn’t impromptu) with little to no resistance; can occupy the locations of power and authority in this nation and walk out again, most without even a scratch… and they know it. They flaunt it. Because they see, even if we refuse to, that this is indeed who we are. The events of this week force us to look at a nation that our neighbors of color have long described to us, have long begged us to acknowledge… and repent. Repent of the ways that we have refused to acknowledge racism. Repent of the excuses for police brutality. Repent of the silence that keeps us comfortable in our whiteness, in our gender or sexuality, in our citizenship, in our Christianity. The events of this week show us the stark reality that marginalized people cannot express their grief and pain at their oppression, cannot demand justice when they have been wronged, but that white people who simply do not want to share power – whose main purpose is to demonstrate to everyone watching just how much they can do and get away with, just how dangerous they are willing to be for the sake of their own power – can throw violent tantrums with minimal consequence. The events of this week show us who we are, even as our faith reminds us who we are called to be.

It will feel like a wilderness journey, as we venture out of the comforts of our known locations, out of the safety of our privileged experiences, and into the insecurity where so many of our neighbors are forced to live. It is a journey we must make with intention: willing to hear with remorse, and engage with responsibility, as we step closer to the baptismal waters to which we have been called. Because the Good News remains, even in the horrors of an insurrection, even in the wake of violence and terror: there is still the voice of one crying in the wilderness to prepare a way, even here, even now, for our God. And he may not be dressed in camel’s hair, her diet may not consist of sticky insects, but still they call, in the hopes that we will respond: proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Still they call: proclaiming a muddy, cold, uncomfortable accounting that will begin the process of mending the damage, the violence that white supremacist patriarchy has done to our souls, both individually and as a society. Still they call: proclaiming that the vows we made in our own water still hold us, still call us to be more than we are, still offer us the promises of grace in the face of sin.

The Good News is that the illumination of the Epiphany – the clarity we gain from our encounter with the incarnate God – remains before us, beckoning us to look closely, to look beyond our comfort, knowing that even in the unbearable clarity of revelation we are encouraged and held by the one in whom we find new understandings. The Good News is that there is a way to heal the soul-tearing damage of human violence, the rending of the Body of Christ and the bonds of our communal being, not through the niceness and civility that put a pretty façade on evil, but through the mountain-lowering, valley-smoothing, earth-shaking acts of repentance, of compassion, of justice that are possible by grace.

This week has shown us who we truly are, if we are willing to look, and see, and understand. It has offered us as well the opportunity to participate in healing, to repent of the damage we have done or have not prevented, and to seek in humility and love to carve a new path, to prepare a new way for our God. This has been a week that calls us anew into the wilderness, in confidence that there is a path forward, into the waters, that we may hear anew the voice that speaks grace as we emerge from the waters of repentance: the renewing promise that we are God’s beloved children in whom God is well pleased.

And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him… And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. –Mark 1: 10, 12-13

This story hits three major points in just a few verses: Jesus’ baptism, the wilderness and temptation, and the testimony that calls for repentance. Even in just 8 verses of Mark’s gospel, these still seem to be discreet stories; three separate movements of Jesus’ ministry. But together, these three provide a necessary schema: a paradigm for us all to follow in our own lived discipleship. In baptism, we remember that God knows us. In witnessing, we show that we know God. But that middle step, that wilderness time; that is crucial, for in it we come to know ourselves: the selves that God knows, and loves. Through that knowledge, we come to  know better the God to whom we are called to witness.

2048px-Edward_Hicks_-_Peaceable_Kingdom

Edward Hicks [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If we were to go directly from God’s powerful love out into public, out into testimony, we would go without fully understanding who or what it truly is that God loves enough to tear apart the firmament, to reach down through the heavens. We need to understand the full power of God’s grace before we try to bear witness to its impact on our lives and on the world around us.

Mark tells us little, here; this gospel writer takes a couple sentences to tell the stories that other gospel writers spend paragraphs on. We are used to hearing more narrative around this wilderness time – details that Matthew and Luke provide in abundance. But I wonder if we don’t need Mark’s brevity, his lack of detail, in order to make this story resonate more clearly in our own lives? I wonder if it isn’t good for us, to be left wanting more, if the lack of detail doesn’t push us to imagine for ourselves  what the temptation might have looked like? Does Mark’s bare narrative encourage us to imagine what it would be like to experience that solitude, that wilderness among the angels and the beasts; the love that the fears that inhabit us all?

When we are alone, when we are in wilderness times – when we are thrown into vulnerability and uncertainty – what prowls around, seeking to feed on us? What sustains us in nurture? And what are the temptations that pull at our hearts?

This week, as happens all too often, we are thrown again into the wilderness, into the desolation of despair as seventeen more lives were lost on a day when we as Christians were called to contemplate our own return to dust and ash. This week, we, too were placed among the wild beasts. We were placed as prey among predators: those who would pull us apart one little bite at a time. We were placed, all of us raw and wounded, before a prowling pack, and we found ourselves staring at the curved claws of anger, at the pointed teeth of violence, at the strong jaws of fear. We looked directly into the predatory eyes of  a culture built on anger, and self-interest; on power and weaponized violence.  And even we, who know ourselves beloved; even we, who understand God’s love and God’s grace for all of creation, felt the tempting pull of the fictitious safety that human power and weaponry promise. We felt the tempting pull of repaying violence with violence; of dehumanizing, of demonizing those of God’s beloved who commit acts of violence, those of God’s beloved whose response to the wilderness is not ours. Even we, who profess God’s love poured out upon us all feel, in times like this, the tempting pull of turning away from love in the name of individual freedom and security.

This week, as happens all too often, we who are God’s beloved have been put into this story of wilderness and temptation. We have found ourselves among beasts and angels. We have been face to face with the tempter, and in our responses, we have borne witness to the gods that we worship.

Jesus, cast out into the wilds beyond the Jordan – beyond even the wilderness where John was baptizing the people of Judea – came face to face with his own beasts: his own temptations about how to respond in the face of fear, in the face of possible violence. Jesus, in vulnerable solitude, likely heard the same tempting whispers that we ourselves have come to know: the ones that urged the security of the preemptive strike, the ones that suggested the safety of being the most powerful. Jesus, as human as any one of us, stood alone among the beasts, tempted. It is a story we find familiar, this week especially.

But Jesus saw what we so often neglect: the angels. Literally, these are the messengers of God, of the gospel – not necessarily the winged humans of renaissance paintings, but the presence of love, of grace, of humility, of compassion made tangible before him. Or before us.

We don’t know, from Mark’s account, what happened in that wilderness encounter when Jesus stood alone between the predators and the Good News of God. We don’t really know what Jesus saw, looking into the eyes of the beasts. We don’t really know what the temptations were, or about the specific nurture of God’s messengers in that moment. All we know is the response to that wilderness time was the witness to the imminence of God’s kin-dom, and the call to repent: to turn our hearts to the God whose love endures even wilderness predators.

What does our witness say of us? we, who are confronted with beasts; we, who hear the whispers of the tempter; we, who know the nurture of angels? What is our witness, as we emerge from this wilderness time, from our latest confrontation with violence, from our temptations to fear and human forms of security?

What is our witness as those who have been fully known, as those who have been called God’s beloved, as those who have been guided and kept by God’s Holy Spirit? What is our witness, to our friends and our families, on email and facebook and twitter?  What is our witness to our senators and representatives? What is our witness, to our communities, to our teachers, to our children? Is it our acquiescence to the power of the predators? Is it the temptation of dominance, of fighting violence with violence, death with death?

Or shall we emerge from the wilderness sustained by angels, testifying and bearing witness to the good news that the kin-dom of God is near, if we but turn our hearts. The kin-dom of God is near, where predators will lose their power and prey their fear, where the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and seventeen children shall finally lead us.

We love because he first loved us. Those who say “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. – 1 John 4: 19-20

As we work our way through this “Be the Church” series, so many of the phrases seem like no-brainers. We hear, “how to be the church: protect the environment, reject racism, embrace diversity” and most of us nod and say “well, of course.” I doubt there’s a single one of these phrases that we’ve read and been really shocked.

But this one: Love God. Isn’t this the most evident one? Isn’t it really our reason for being here? This one phrase, towards the end of the banner, feels more like a starting point than a goal toward which we, as a church, need to strive.

The idea of loving God echoes throughout scripture, from the phrase in Deuteronomy that has become a crucial prayer for our Jewish cousins: Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might. This phrase reappears in the Gospels, where it is both quoted and added to: we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And one might argue that all the rest of our Bible is just commentary on this one point that Jesus called the greatest commandment – commentary to which he added in abundance. And if we spend page upon page of scripture, parable after parable of gospel story, point after point of history and prophecy and reflection exploring what this one commandment actually looks like in practice, then maybe it’s safe to say that “Love God” isn’t nearly the no-brainer we’d like it to be.

In his extrapolation on the greatest commandment, Jesus reminds us to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. The author of the epistle we read this morning emphasizes this point: that love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor, from the love of those who are created, as we are, in God’s image. Which doesn’t leave much wiggle-room, though we seem to keep trying to find a loophole.

Several years ago, the British actor Russell Brand had a short-lived talk show, one segment of which has stayed with me. He invited two members of Westboro Baptist onto his set, to explain why they picketed funerals, pride celebrations, and churches like ours. Brand took the opportunity to ask how, in the light of such scriptures as we heard today, the folks at Westboro could preach such hatred? Their answer: it wasn’t hatred, but love. They did love the world, they said, so it was their duty to save it from the sins they saw as pervasive in our culture. And though I think that we can all recognize the corruption of the word love here, from a group whose signs often read “God Hates [fill in the blank],” it strikes me that the clear example here underlines the slipperiness we sometimes experience in acting out of a place of love. Because I have heard, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, the shaming of women – over  their weight, their clothes – supposedly for the sake of their health, their attractiveness to a partner, their safety in this world.  All of which are seemingly benign, even positive reasons; all of which leave tremendous scars and can have devastating consequences to their physical and mental health. I have heard the loving parents who seemingly don’t want their child teased – again, a reason that seems utterly benign! – and so enforce conformity to social norms around what toys they use, what sports they play, what clothes they wear, until the child loses their self entirely, loathing their own impulses and doubting their own dreams. Is this love?

I have heard the people, bare-faced yesterday in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, shouting their torch-lit certainty that only certain people are worthy of love, and that the rest are an infestation to be removed rather than beloved children of the creator. I’ve heard the assertion, in the name of fairness and love, that both sides – the armed and the unarmed, the prayerful and the threatening, the murderous and the self-defending – bear equal responsibility for violence.

I have heard corrective love, which says, “I love you so I’m going to tell you how wrong you are.”

I have heard inward-focused love, which says, “I love my people so much I’m going to get rid of the people not like us.”

I have heard conditional love, which says, “I love you, but I’d love you so much more if you’d change.”

I have heard tremendous harm done to human hearts and human relationships in the name of love, in the name of a loving God.

Having heard all of that, I tell you truly that we are failing at that greatest commandment, whether by constraining our own willingness to love, or by remaining silent in the face of an unjust, unloving world. And if we are failing at this commandment, I’m not sure how well we’re doing at loving God.

Because the person who quizzed Jesus about what it would take to achieve the Kin-dom knew the commandment. He knew to love God, knew to love his neighbor… but he still had to ask the question that we so often seem to ask, which is as much about how we love, as it is about whom we love. And Jesus told him a parable: about how the people who did things differently, the people we’d be tempted to “lovingly” correct in their beliefs, their manners, their ways of worship, might be the ones who could teach us a thing or two about what it really looks like to love. Jesus told a parable about how love is going to mean getting our hands dirty, about how it might cost us emotionally and financially, about how it might be the way into the Kin-dom of God.  Jesus told a parable about how the refusal to see the suffering of another, no matter how different, is a form of violence; not how we bring about the Kin-dom. Jesus told a parable in which we are reminded that love cares for a person as they are; that love seeks to heal, not to harm; that love sees the image of God in another – even the most different, despised other – and makes God visible in this world.

The love that we are called to embody is the love that we have known first from God: the love which is uncritical, unconditional; which sees in us the reflection of the divine, the creation which is blessed by God from the beginning of the world. The love that we are called to embody is is both incredibly simple and extremely difficult, because it calls us to see each other – beyond the familiar, beyond the known, beyond the comfortable; to see each other as we have been seen by God, to see each other as though we were seeing God. It calls for us to care as much about the stranger as we do about our own people; to remember that we are all kin, we are all siblings – of all shapes, all sizes, all genders, all colors – images of our one God walking through this world.

To love God is to love the presence of the divine made visible in that which God created, made present in our care for each other, without condition, without reservation; without harm, or shame, or correction.

And I hope that is, in fact, why we are here.

I hope that this is our starting point, when we come into worship, whether or not we consider this love a no-brainer. Because the love of God, present here in us all, is indeed the foundation on which we build all the other ways we are the church.  The vision we cultivate here of God’s image in us all – those who look like us, who think like us, and those who do not; those who are familiar to us, and those who are not – is the beginning of faith, the beginning of discipleship. I hope that we come here to begin the practice of seeing God in those who are not just like us, and of being seen as carrying God’s image within us. I hope that we come here to begin the practice of loving, and of being loved, in this place as we are with God, so that we can carry that practice out into the world and love our God by loving one another: all of us, who are created in God’s image, all of us, who are held by God’s grace, all of us, who are siblings to one another in God’s love.

O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God! Even now your enemies are in tumult; those who hate you have raised their heads… Do to them as you did to Midian, as to Sisera and Jabin and the Wadi Kishon, who were destroyed at En-Dor, who became dung for the ground.  Ps. 83: 1-2, 9-10

image courtesy of the United Church of Christ.

 

 

In 1969, psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a paper in which she outlined the  five stages of grief.  These have been popularized and repeated, until most of us know the concept, at least. However, as just about anyone who’s really been consumed by grief has likely felt, knowing that there are five stages doesn’t always mean we allow time for them. Much more common, in our culture, is a certain impatience with the process of grieving. “Aren’t you over it yet?” and “just move on” have become common phrases in a society which no longer honors at least a year of mourning – as we did a century ago. Modern America would much rather not dwell in the pain of grief and loss.

This may seem an odd entry point into a sermon on forgiveness, but I wonder if it really is: as with grief, our culture pushes us to “get over it” and “move on” from the pain not just of death but of all broken relationships, all hurts that we receive. And where at least with grief, there is some acceptance of a need for time to heal, with other hurts we are pushed to “forgive and forget” quickly as possible. Yet the very human inability to do so, in many cases, sends people into my office time and again, ashamed of the time it takes to do the work of forgiveness.  We hold up the communities around the victims of the shootings at Mother Emmanuel AME in Charleston, or the school in the  Amish town of Nickel Mines, PA, as paragons of Christian faith for their early public declarations of forgiveness… and then fear for our own faith when we can’t do likewise.

We forget that as with grief, forgiveness isn’t really a once-off thing, but a process of restoration and healing by oneself and in community.

Just as the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – are all aspects of the grieving process, so too there are aspects of forgiveness which we tend to lump into one. And this makes the task of preaching on the idea of forgiveness a very hard thing indeed. Because I don’t even know what forgiveness means, half the time; we use this word in so many ways, assign to it so many meanings, that, for me, at least, it’s become meaningless. “Forgiveness” has become simply a catch-all word for a myriad of little steps towards a still-slippery end goal.

In a lot of ways, I think I’d be more comfortable if this sermon series included the topic “repent often.” Despite the possible  connotations of hellfire and brimstone which we associate with repentance, I like the sense of responsibility: if you do wrong, own it. When you apologize, mean it. Turn your heart with compassion on the person you hurt and make it better.  “Repent often” at least speaks to the power dynamic involved, and suggests that the one who does the hurting, rather than the victim of the hurt,      is responsible for repairing the breach. Such a stance is scriptural, even – repentance makes up the meat of whole books of prophecy, we see it as a frequent theme of Gospels. Jesus said it, so it must be important, right?

But the chosen phrase is forgive often. You, who have been hurt, you get to do the work… which seems unfair at first. But here, too, we encounter key themes of Scripture: in the Jesus who reminds us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile; to not let our victimhood define us but to reclaim our humanity, our dignity, and to insist that even in our hurt, we are treated as an equal. It is likewise a theme of scripture to feel deeply the injustices done, even to feel anger at being so hurt. There are many instances in which we are reminded that it’s okay to rant at God, as the Psalmist does, for the sake of acknowledging the depth of our hurt.       There is a reason the stages move from denial to anger, in forgiveness as in grief, as we measure the impact of pain on our lives and claim the unfairness of it, in the face of our inherent worth.

For particularly in Gospels, we hear clearly the phrase “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and recall that it means we must start by loving ourselves.  We must start by seeing ourselves as worthy of being well-treated.

A lot of times, when I hear people talk about forgiveness, this is what they mean, and forgiveness is the reclaiming of the self:        the refusal to be bound by the act that harmed them. I heard this clearly in a conversation with a woman who had been assaulted, who noted that she can’t undo what happened, and doesn’t now know who she would be had it not happened. The key, for her, was in learning to love herself as she was, despite a painful past.

 

Is this forgiveness? the release of resentment, the learning to be at peace with one’s past and its influence on our lives? Is this forgiveness? the understanding of another and what would push them to hurt us? Is it the forgiveness of oneself for whatever sense of responsibility we feel towards the situations in which we’ve been hurt? Is forgiveness the peace one finds in accepting ourselves as we are, given everything that has impacted us, good and bad?

Perhaps.

Certainly this is something we should do often, this self-love that insists on our own worth and dignity, on the image of God that no act of violence should be able to remove. In this alone – in this building up of each person, in sure knowledge of our worth and in confidence that each of us is made in God’s image – to do the work of forgiveness is to be the church.

Sometimes this is the only stage of forgiveness that we can achieve: that of release of resentment, that reclaiming of our sense of worth, that finding peace with all that our experiences have made us. For to move into the next stages of forgiveness requires the active repentance of those whom we might forgive, which is not always possible.

But that’s the messy part  about the word “forgive.” It’s why I so often struggle with its meaning: we forgive *someone.* Whatever was meant, the survivors of Mother Emmanuel forgave Dylann Roof. The families of the Amish school shooting victims forgave Charles Roberts. Forgiveness, in English, has an object. Which makes the line between the stages of forgiveness a very tenuous one indeed.

If forgiveness begins in the love of ourselves, it seeks eventually to invoke the love of our neighbor; to reincorporate community. And even when that is possible, it’s hard.  Because when forgiveness turns outward, away simply from our own hearts and our own sense of self; when forgiveness seeks to restore the relationship broken by hurt then forgiveness is not simply about the victim seeking peace, but about recognition of harm done to another, the possibility of reconciliation.  And that requires two people, in a mutuality of understanding.

I can imagine the Psalmist sharing her wrathful poem with the people on whom she cried vengeance, in the hopes that the depth of her pain might move them to repentance. And it is clear that when forgiveness seeks to restore the relationship, there is vulnerability in honesty. This forgiveness is a very different matter. This forgiveness does not depend solely on us, on our own vision of our worthiness, but on the hope that the one who hurt us can be led to see that worth as well, can be led to do the work of healing and restoration.

And let me be clear: to conflate the release of resentment and peace with oneself with the restoration of relationship with the one who hurt us; to conflate the understanding of, or even the compassion for the reasons someone might have hurt us with excusing their behavior and all its consequences is to dramatically misunderstand forgiveness.  No amount of Christian faith and compassion requires us to enter back into a relationship that will render us unsafe. Loving our neighbor as ourselves  does not mean putting ourselves at undue risk, or allowing ourselves to remain in abusive relationships, or excusing harm on the basis of understanding its origins.

When forgiveness goes beyond the self, when forgiveness enters the territory of loving one’s neighbor, it requires the active participation of that neighbor; it requires the person who did harm to be as active in the process of reconciliation as they were in the process of creating the hurt in the first place.

And it requires the loving presence of the community: around the one harmed and the one who did harm.  The process of forgiveness requires us to be the church: the community who stands with the victim in support and in reminder of their worth; the community who sees in them the image of God, the presence of the divine within them, even when they cannot; the community who reminds them that the hurt is not all in their head, that it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to stick up for themselves and love themselves through the hurt.  The process of forgiveness requires us to be the church, who asks repentance of the one who has done harm, who seeks accountability firmly and compassionately, who maintains the boundaries that keep the entire community safe.

The process of forgiveness, like the process of grief, compels we who would be the Body of Christ to set aside our discomfort and walk one another through the pain, walk one another through the anger and the sadness, walk one another through all of the stages until there is forgiveness.

And it requires us to do so often.

Not only for the many ways in which we hurt one another, but for the many times in which even old pain echoes down throughout our lives, popping up afresh at unexpected moments even when we thought we actually were over it.

For being the church is not about forgiving easily, no matter what our culture tells us, but about committing to the possibility that we might get there eventually. Being the church is about a commitment to the process of walking all the stages, to the hope that our hearts might fully embody the forgiveness we profess. Being the church is about doing the work of making space for the pain we feel, and reminding us that our hurts do not make us any less worthy of being children of God. Being the church is about being the safe space in which the process of forgiveness can take place, in all its messiness, in all its stages.  Being the church is about being the one place in our culture that doesn’t tell us to get over it, to move on, already; but where we can bring our brokenness, our woundedness, our repentance and our heartbreak, and begin, in this community, to do the work of healing, of reconciliation, of learning to love ourselves and our neighbors as we have been loved.