Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Getting away with it

This sermon was shared at First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple at the Saturday evening service of Feb. 15, 2014. It used the scripture of Matthew 5:21-37.

Let’s talk about rules. We’re in a Methodist church, right? So tell me, who here is good at following rules? Please raise your hand. Okay, who here is bad at following rules? Please raise your hand. Who here just doesn’t like to raise their hand?
            I’m a guy who actually likes rules. Really, I do! Give me a checklist and I will go down and systematically check those things off the list. You would be amazed at the impressive list of checks on my checklist, were you to check out my impressive list of checks.
            Or even better, instructions. Give me a collection of instructions, and I would probably be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. My parents were fairly well convinced that I would be engineer when I grew up. Seems pretty unlikely now, but when I was playing with Legos as a kid—dude, I looked like an engineer. I always had trouble completing a project when I just had one my big bins of jumbled up blocks, gizmos, and dismembered Lego people bodies, but give me step-by-step instructions and I could build anything. I still remember one of my favorite Christmas gifts—a Lego battle droid from Star Wars Episode I. You know, the one with Jar Jar Binks? I spent the afternoon of Christmas Day in my grandparents’ basement following those step-by-step instructions until that 2-foot-tall masterpiece would not only walk but also unholster its ray-gun in one fluid motion. Behold! The power of plastic pieces, some detailed instructions, and one little anti-social 8-year-old.
            As I got older, I learned other kinds of rules and instructions, namely social norms. Those don’t necessarily come easy to a kid who would prefer a dim basement and Lego instructions to actually spending time with my Iowan grandma. But over time, I learned how the world worked. Namely, identify the authority figures, find out what pleases those authority figures, and then subtly fulfill the desires of the authority figures, especially the desires that they don’t explicitly make known. And I was good at that. I suppose I still am.
            But here’s the thing about rules: they’re meant to be broken. At least in America, that’s the common ethic. Break the rules and get away with it. That’s what the smart ones, the cool ones, the fast ones, the successful ones all do. Break, or at least bend, the rules and get away with it. Guy Forsyth, a blues and folk musician from Austin, Texas gets the American ethos: “Everyone wants to pull off the crime of the century—steal two hundred gazillion dollars, enough to buy myself an island and build an honest-to-God train on it for no one but me. And get away with it. Get away with it. We Americans are freedom-loving people and nothing says freedom like getting away with it.”
            Or even more colorfully, there’s the allegory that my dad likes to use. The speed limit allegory of the American spirit: So we have a speed limit of 55 miles an hour. I know that 9 out of 10 cops will let me drive 60 miles an hour and not pull me over. And when there aren’t any cops around, I can go 70. And get away with it.
            Just look at some of most beloved heroes. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer float on a raft, defying their frazzled families and all that comes of it is one of the more memorable funeral services in American literature. Indiana Jones rescues the Ark of the Covenant and the damsel in distress without ever worrying that his lack of office hours at his tenure university post will adversely affect his evaluations. Harry Potter slinks around in a cloak of invisibility and not only defeats the Dark Lord but embarrasses all the bullies along the way.
            Break the rules. Get away with it. Behold, the great American ethos.
            So what’s up with this gospel lesson? I don’t know about you, but I came to reclaim my Christian faith with a strongly Methodist flavor because Jesus is constantly bending the rules until they break. Jesus hung out with drunks, prostitutes, and racketeers; disrupted orderly worship services by healing outcast lepers; and then embarrassed his snobby hosts by talking religion and politics at the dinner table. That’s counter-cultural Jesus, Jesus de la resistance, Jesus de la revolución! He probably had stylish facial hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and skinny jeans, too.
            But the Jesus of Matthew 5 is giving even more rules. Not that it’s big deal since we’re so good at bending rules, but Jesus is making it really hard to get around these rules. Holding onto anger is akin to murder, ogling equals adultery, and no matter how important your grandmother was to you, don’t swear on her grave. Then there’s the very troubling afterlife of the commandment about divorce. Couple that passage with Paul’s instructions for women at church and at home and we’ve got serious issues. It’s no wonder America, that ever-so Christian nation, is so good at breaking the rules and then getting away with it. What else are we gonna do with ridiculous rules that we can never actually follow?
            That is, if we look at Jesus’ sermon superficially. See, these commandments don’t stand alone in the Gospel of Matthew. They’re part of a much larger Sermon on the Mount. Just before Jesus starts telling his disciples or the multitudes or whoever it is who is sitting on the mountain with him, Jesus tells his congregation that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. These are encouraging words, but now Jesus is saying what flavor the salt is enhancing and what exactly the light is illuminating. Then Jesus references the law and the prophets, primarily that he has come to fulfill them and not abolish them. What we get next in these commandments are the parts of the law and prophets that Jesus is flavoring and illuminating.
            And then there’s the cultural context. I could quite easily give four separate sermons for these four commandments if I wanted to delve into the historical criticism of each commandment, six sermons if you include the two next commandments that tonight’s reading did not include but directly follow in the Bible. I know you must be terribly excited now, but I must disappoint you by admitting that I only prepared this one sermon. Suffice to say Jesus was addressing real issues that his listeners were really dealing with back in 1st century Palestine, much like preachers tend to do these days.
            So what is Jesus saying with these commandments if not instructing us in the whiles of litigation, sexuality, marriage, and public speaking? Scholars often call the style that Jesus uses here at antitheses, the plural of antithesis, which is that pattern of “you have heard…but I say”. It was a common rhetorical technique of rabbis of Jesus’ time, who were constantly interpreting and reinterpreting the Torah, the Law of Moses, the rules of Jesus’society. So let’s call Jesus “rabbi” here and recognize how truly counter-cultural Rabbi Jesus ben-Joseph is being when he gives this sermon.
            See, Jesus’ community was full, overflowing really, with inequality, much like today in our communities. There were levels of interlocking oppression ranging from the Roman occupying military to Hellenistic household hierarchies to the laws of the Torah that folks had been abusing for years. Women and poor people were perpetually at the bottom, though there were always inspirational stories of folks who escaped the doom of poverty and made it big. The general rule, however, was that these interlocking rules of state, culture, and religion systematically kept the folks on the bottom from moving up and threatening the status quo. While Jesus couldn’t have been happy about Roman and Hellenistic oppression, he really got mad about the oppression from the Jewish law. Because Jesus was Jewish. Because Jesus was a scholar of the Jewish law. Because Jesus knew that the Law was supposed to free people, not enslave them.
            Any good American might kinda snort, roll her eyes, and say, “So what?  Just be creative and break the rules. Get around them and get away with it.” But when we bend the rules until they break, we are admitting that the rules aren’t doing what they were meant to do. It seems a little self-evident. We break the rules we don’t like. We get around the rules because they do not lead us to fuller, more abundant life, so we break the rules and hope to get away with it. However, getting away with it abandons our responsibility to the multitudes who are trapped in the mire. Getting away with it assumes an ethic similar to the ancient ethic of Cain, that when someone asks us where our sister or brother is, we respond, “How should I know? Am I my sister or brother’s keeper?”
            Let’s think about that for just a bit. What happens when we abandon our responsibility to care for our fellow children of God? What happens when we focus on getting away with it instead of getting it right? Maybe we’ve seen a lesson in the country of Sweden where a judge recently ruled that a rapist can only commit rape if the rapist believed that the rapist was raping. According to court testimony the survivor of the sexual assault told her rapist to stop time and time and time again, but that he didn’t believe her. The rapist testified that he knew she really wanted to be raped. So he should get away with it.
            Maybe we see lessons in news coming from the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan when American missile strikes kill children. Unmanned drones deliver smart bombs with surgical precision, so innocent people who die in these strikes just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Besides, everyone knows that you shouldn’t be hanging around the wrong kinds of people. So our military should get away with it.
            Maybe we see lessons in our own state capital when legions of lobbyist, working in concert with armies of accountants, make sure that 2/3 of publically tradedcorporations pay nothing in state tax. Never mind that we have to close schools, cut pensions, and forcibly tighten the belts of the already hungry. We have to make sure that businesses keep jobs here in Illinois, whatever the cost. So multi-billion-dollar corporations get away with it.
            What have we done? Listen! The blood of our sisters and brothers is crying out from the ground! Even if we did not give that cruelest cut, we have not cared for our neighbor the way we ought to. This is confession time, and it’s good for the soul.
            This is why Jesus broadens the rules so that it’s so hard to get around them and get away with it. While some of the rules in the Torah don’t seem to apply to 21st century America, there are others that can preach volumes in not only this pulpit but from the middle of Daley Plaza as well. Yes, I know there are weird rules about avoiding hoopoes for dinner and things of that sort, and my youth group had a great time laughing about it. However, the books of especially Leviticus and Deuteronomy also command that farms and eating establishment not throw away all their left-over food so that poor people can eat good food.  The Torah commands that we treat immigrants with respect and dignity because we were all once immigrants, too. The Torah commands that every seven years debts must be canceled so that people remain equal and in right relationship with one another. The Torah is a blessing to God’s people so that God’s people may be a blessing to the world.
            Jesus doesn’t want us to just get away with breaking the rules, even bad rules, because these are kingdom rules, where the Lord our God reigns with wisdom and justice. Or even better, Jesus is highlighting kin-dom rules, where God is gathering her children back to her as a hen gathers her brood. Instead of seeking to use rules like a cop might use a nightstick, these kin-dom rules remind us that we have a common divine parent and we must care for our family.
            These kin-dom rules have echoed throughout the history of the church, and different leaders have emerged to preach them from the public square when we started to care more about getting away with than getting it right. St. Francis said preach the gospel always and when necessary, use words. Martin Luther preached the priesthood of all believers. The Methodist movement’s own John Wesley declared that there is no religion but social religion, and John Wesley knew some things about rules.
            I know that there are times when we need to break rules because some rules are simply unjust. However, when we know the kin-dom rules by heart (not necessarily memorized, but know them by heart), we realize that we can no longer hope to break the rules and get away with it. We have to care for our sisters and brothers along the way. That’s what Harriet Tubman did. She broke the rules time and time again by guiding African-descended slaves from the South to free land that is just across the Ohio River. She was not following a self-serving, ego-aggrandizing ethic of simply “getting away with it” but knew the kin-dom rules so well that she could see that the other slaves were indeed her own kin, her own sisters and brothers.
            And that was why folks called Harriet Tubman “Moses”. Harriet Tubman followed a higher rule and sent her people across the Ohio River like Moses sent his people across the Jordan River. Harriet Tubman knew the kin-dom rules and would follow them wherever they took her. And so the words of Moses continue to echo through to us today through the redeeming power of Jesus Christ who took the care to sit down talk about the rules with us. The words call from not only the mountain and the pulpit but also the streets which shall be restored so that children can live and play in them again. The words will echo in springs and river valleys flowing with clean water, purified of the taint of greed. The words will echo even in the dark places as sisters and brother reclaim their kin from the shadows of addiction and exploitation.
            And those words will echo throughout all the neighborhoods, all the cities, all the suburbs and small towns, throughout all the nations where disciples grow knowing these kin-dom rules by heart. And those words will be: See, I have put before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…Choose life that you and your descendents may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God.”
            So dear friends, let’s put away our petty desire to get around the rules and get away with it. Let’s get to know God’s kin-dom rules by heart, get to know who our kin, our sisters and brothers, really are, and then, and only then, can we get to know what it is to truly choose life.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Baby of the Star

The following poem was written by Tim Muckian, a volunteer with the Takin’ It to the Streets program of South Loop Campus Ministry. He usually stays at the Pacific Garden Mission on the Near South Side. Tim is a member at Grace Place Episcopal Church, where SLCM hosts the Takin’ It the Streets program, and he always brightens the mood with his off-color jokes and proudly Irish heritage. Tim has been writing poems for Christmas for a number of years, and this is the one for this year. Many thanks are do due to him for sharing this with all of us.

The Baby of the Star
Christmas time is almost here
A day we all hold so dear.

Three wise men traveled every so far
To find the baby of the star.

They found the baby while at rest
Nuzzled to his Mother’s breasts.

She held him close and with such love
Then gave him a kiss, and a tender hug.

Then placed him back where he laid
On a bed made of hay.

Not much of place for a new born King
The ruler of everything.

But all the same he came to be
Part of the Holy Trinity.

He’s the one who loves you most
The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

So wherever you come from, and wherever you are
On Christmas Day drop to your knees and pray
For the baby of the star.

By Timothy Joseph Muckian

Friday, December 13, 2013

Season of darkness, season of light

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
-          John 1:5

It’s a dark time of year. It just is, at least this far north. Within a few weeks of the longest night of the year, the shadows seem to creep deeper. The sun seems further away. Slowly but surely the status quo seems to freeze into place.
Lights and dark at the Lincoln Park Zoo makes for an odd, if
bewildering, contrast. 'Tis the season.
            And at most universities, this dark time of year just happens to coincide with the end of the semester.
            Sitting at the cafeteria at Roosevelt University’s Wabash Building, I observed a sort of dry anxiety among students. It’s like they’re too little butter spread over too much bread. Jobs claim many hours to pay tuition and other bills, and classes claim many more hours. Sleep comes in naps between study sessions and take-home finals. A “personal” life seems like a cruel mockery, and the future is even more frightening.
            And oh! The irony of Daley Plaza’s Christmas Village and Lincoln Park Zoo’s winter wonderland.
Wander into Macy’s material maze of festive magic that appeared before the Halloween cobwebs had been put away. Get a cup of coffee while an electronic jazz band contemporizes an Irving Berlin classic. Okay, will you just stop trying to force joy, dammit?!
            We in the Church know these things. We feel them, too. Especially during this season we anxiously look toward an empty crèche, searching for the boy-king who will brighten the darkness with all his Baby Jesus Powers. How long, Lord? How long?
            It feels to me like we’re stuck at the foot of the cross. We’re looking for some miracle on the mountaintop, but all we see is death. Perhaps we forget that the miracle of the resurrection didn’t occur until the darkness was perfect in the sealed grave. We prefer the open air of Calvary to the claustrophobia of the empty tomb. We feel like we have more control if we can just have a visible escape route.
            I’m often surprised that the gospel reading for Christmas Day is the first chapter of John, but within a few weeks of the darkest day of the year, it seems so appropriate. We so desperately need light—in our final exams, in our finances, in our overworked and underappreciated bodies—and we celebrate the light on Christmas.
            This is the message we in the Church have to offer. We call it like it is. We see death around us, we see the darkness, but the darkness did not and does not overcome the light. We’re scared of the dark, too, but our hope is greater than our fear.
            So yes, it’s dark out. All the lights on the Magnificent Mile can’t stop that. However, the light that the darkness cannot overcome doesn’t come from the retailers. The light that truly brightens the dark world doesn’t come from spotless resumes and transcripts. The light to which baptizers testify comes from inside the still, deep darkness of the tomb.
            And then that light—unexpectedly—rolls away the stone.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A time to lament

[Presented as part of November, 2011 South Loop Campus Ministry board meeting.]

When the darkness appears
 And the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand, 
guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

Seeming to based on Romans 5:20, this is written on a
wall of a loading dock by Lower Columbus Drive. SLCM
volunteers regularly deliver sandwiches to homeless
folks who sleep there.
I don’t know how long we would have stood there, at the corner of Lower Wacker and Lower Michigan,
with the homeless woman crying and wailing about the cold, about being hungry, about the conditions in the shelters…about so many things. I don’t know how long we would have tried to hold her hand, squeeze her shoulders, pray silently and pray aloud, nod empathetically and stare blankly back at her. I don’t know how long we would have felt helpless to help.
            I don’t know how long we would have been stuck in our not knowing if Thomas, one of our homeless guides, hadn’t tapped me on the shoulder and said, “She’s like this all the time, and now I probably won’t get any sleep tonight. Time to move on.”
            Walter Brueggemann wrote in Prophetic Imagination that lament is a necessary action to break out the paralysis of what he calls the “royal consciousness”, that state of being stuck in whatever state we’re in right now. That status quo always serves the already powerful and always hurts the already hurting. And damn—that woman at the corner of Lower Wacker and Lower Michigan was hurting and lamenting.
            In a much quieter manner students were lamenting up on the 14th floor of Roosevelt University’s Wabash Building where we had set up a Reformation Day door. Students wrote their grievances and their visions for change in the world on pieces of paper and then literally nailed them on the door. People wrote about everything from a living wage for workers to legalization of pot to “some lovin’ for Mexicans”. I don’t know exactly what spurred them to write what they did, but a lot of people liked the action of nailing their “theses” to the door. I suppose it was an avenue to release some of their pent up anguish. I doubt our flimsy door could survive a full release of their anguish.
            Sometimes in ministry pastors can get to thinking that people have such petty problems. Don’t these people know that while they’re whining about their roommates other folks are freezing down by the Chicago River? And don’t get me started on economic inequality…
            Here’s the thing—lament is lament, even if I don’t understand why a certain issue is problematic. If justice is “right relationship”, then injustice must be broken relationship. And that is something to lament.

Kyrie eleison.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Church of the Misfits and the Dissidents

Sermon given at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity on Aug. 25, 2013 based on Acts 11:19-26, 13:1-3.

I had a great week at church this week.

A few of the misfits and dissidents on the first night of
Jesus and Justice Camp (photo by Tom Gaulke)
Every night from Tuesday until Friday a group of about 15 to 20 people got together for what we called a “Jesus and Justice Camp”, and it highlighted what I love so much about this particular church on the corner of 31st and Lowe in South Side Chicago. On Friday night we started with the story of stone soup, a folk tale where people collectively make a “feast fit for a king” by sharing their varied foods with a protagonist stranger and with each other. Naturally, we acted out the story by making our own “stone soup”, and it was indeed darn good soup. Then we went upstairs to the auditorium of the First Trinity Community Center, AKA the Orphanage, and we shared our diverse views on more stories of wisdom and justice. Finally we ended with songs around a campfire, which miraculously did not spur the neighbors just across the alley to call the fire department. Surely God is with us!

And it was such a weird group! This church was like a former commercial emporium that was downsized to a gas station convenience store where the homeless rest, the revolutionaries plan their protests, and the dedicated faithful continue their mission come hell or high water. Hallelujah!

Though I risk aggrandizing this little South Side congregation, I can’t help but feel that maybe this is what it felt like to be part of those scattered, first century Jesus communities. The church lives with the tension of honoring the storied traditions of our forebears from centuries before and living into the unknown realms of a world that has already changed so much that we can hardly recognize it; staying within the good graces of the neighborhood and regional authorities and also challenging the rot that consumes so much of what we stone soup cooks can scrape together; recognizing the world as it brutally and beautifully is and conceiving the unfolding eschatological world that God is still creating.

Maybe the reason why I get so excited about this congregation at First Trinity is because I come to it as an outsider.

In 2010 I graduated from a small liberal arts college in the wooded hills and valleys of central Pennsylvania, and I had not a clue of what I was doing. I had been accepted into a young adult missionary program of the United Methodist Church (yes! I am Methodist! Hear me roar, you Lutherans, hear me roar!), and by May of that year I knew I was headed to Chicago to work for a non-profit that did a bunch of things I didn’t begin to understand. A week-long intern training helped clarify what Interfaith Worker Justice was all about, but I thought that I could find my own living community. After all, this was my chance to live the way that my hero, that Philadelphia ordinary radical with dreadlocks and an eastern Tennessee accent, Shane Claiborne, lived! I couldn’t wait to move half-way across the country to a bad neighborhood, befriend all the gang-bangers, and do everything that my parents and youth leaders warned me not to do!

And then I got a call that the far North Side co-op couldn’t accept me because I wasn’t a seminarian or a grad student. Not the call I was waiting for considering that I was still plucking crab grass out of the fringe of number 13 green at the golf course where I was biding my time. I frantically called my future co-workers at IWJ and my supervisor at the United Methodist Church. My chance to be Shane Claiborne was about to slip away! Help meeee! Somehow those good Methodists booked a flight for me to Chicago for a weekend to take part in another North Side co-op’s membership meeting. As I frantically made my arrangements, I got an email from one of my co-workers at IWJ about a Christian co-op on the South Side. But it was far away from the office. And the pastor had a last name that I didn’t know how to pronounce. And when I called that pastor, he told me to just use his first name anyway. What a weird place.

I spent that weekend doing my best to schmooze who I confidently thought would be my future roommates (15 of them), but out of courtesy, I made the long trip down the Red Line to see that weird place down south. I thought it was cool that it was so close to where the White Sox played, but otherwise, I wasn’t sure about it. I even saw two guys getting booked on Morgan Street just south of the coffee shop.

When I left Chicago at the end of that weekend, I still hadn’t heard of the North Side co-op’s decision about my place. Having less than a week to pack up again, I called the only cell number I had for the co-op. He reluctantly gave the bad news—they didn’t think I would be good fit. I curtly said kaythanksbye, and called Pastor Tom on the South Side to say that I would take the room in their community center.

I believe his response was, “Wait—you will?”

It was a hard transition from rural central Pennsylvania, what some of my college friends called “Pennsyltucky”, to the South Side Chicago. After accidentally driving into McCormick Place while trying to get to Lake Shore Drive and then scraping the car in front of me while trying to parallel park, I decided to stay dedicated to the CTA. The same coworker who found the room at First Trinity for me called the decision akin to a battered wife staying dedicated to her abusive husband. I was woken up by Chicago police detectives one morning after the gas station next door was the site of a shootout between a couple burglars and the cops. And I witnessed “thundersnow” for the first time.

What the crap is this place?

Well, apparently it was just where God wanted to work on me. It was at First Trinity where I first was introduced to SOUL and IIRON, the community groups with which I learned so much about grassroots organizing. It was Pastor Tom who directed me to Paul Tillich when I confessed that I could no longer turn to my evangelical theology to understand the social justice work I was doing. First Trinity even got me to get my trumpet back out when I had left it in Pennsylvania.

But more than those things, First Trinity has been my home.

When I read about start of the church in Antioch, how Luke describes it as the place where Gentiles were first accepted as Christ-followers, how it was so full of the Holy Spirit that Barnabas brought Saul (later called Paul) there, how they were so weird there that got a new name—Christians—I see bits of my journey through First Trinity.

For a church that was started as a place of refuge for the scattered German laborers of 19th century Chicago, First Trinity has had to reinvent itself and its mission. In the way that the Antioch community had to re-imagine community outside of born-and-bred Jews, First Trinity has had to re-imagine its mission as the only progressive, mainline Protestant church in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic neighborhood. In that re-imagining process, it has become what I call the Church of the Misfits and the Dissidents. I hope First Trinity bears its title proudly.

In the way that First Trinity welcomed me in my desperate times, I pray that it welcomes the many desperate people in its midst. In the way that First Trinity developed me to fight for justice locally and nationally, I pray that it prepares even more people to catch that Holy Wind of righteous indignation when violence and oppression occur. In the way that First Trinity challenged me to use my creative talents in worship, I pray that it moves even more people to express themselves artistically. In the way that First Trinity has been my home community, I pray that it will be a sanctuary for many other people.

First Trinity is also a missional church, much like that Antioch church. I am moving on with my seminary training by beginning a year-long internship with First United Methodist Church, better known as the Chicago Temple, and it is my new mission field. Though I will continue to live at Trinity House, that re-commissioned parsonage next to the church, I will not be able to be part of First Trinity’s church life this year. The Chicago Temple is very different than First Trinity, and that will be difficult for me. However, First Trinity has trained me well to accept all manner of people and their various quirks, and it has taught me to boldly bring my own quirks to ministry. Be prepared, Chicago Temple.

First Trinity both welcomes missionaries and commissions them again. And for that, I thank you.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Austerity, abundance, and my American psyche

View of downtown from on top of Mount Bridgeport
(photo by Steve Vance)
It was such a pretty day in Chicago. The July heat had broken, and October-like cool had moved in, much to my pleasure. My fiancée and walked up to the top of a hill in Palmisano Park in the South Side Bridgeport neighborhood (a place I’ve also heard people call Stearns Quarry Park for the quarry that formerly occupied the site or Mount Bridgeport for the rare change in elevation). Cotton-ball cumulus clouds drifted above us toward Lake Michigan. Children flew kites around us. It doesn’t get prettier than that in Chicago.

And then Kacie asked me what I was thinking about. For some reason, I mentioned how I was worried about money. Suddenly frowny-face clouds rushed in, covering the happy-face sun, and all the kites immediately dropped to the ground with no wind and only suffocating humidity to keep them afloat. A child started softly crying, “Why is it ALWAYS personal finances? Why?” It wasn’t very pretty now.

After some uncomfortable conversation, Kacie started to get visibly upset. She expressed that she didn’t know why I didn’t trust her to help us to achieve our dreams together—careers in ministry and fashion design (respectively) with a strong emphasis on advocacy for the poor and marginalized, traveling around the world to experience different cultures, eventually have a couple of kids (eventually). I felt distance between us.

I took a deep breath for a bit of self-reflection, and I stepped in to the confession booth with my fiancée on the other side of the screen. See, I wasn’t so concerned about how our dreams were too idealistic or grand. I was concerned about how I, and I alone, would resource those dreams. After all, as the husband of an American family unit, it will be my responsibility to make sure that everyone’s dreams come true. Unfortunately, I have a couple more years of grad school and internships before I could come anywhere close to fulfilling that role. And then there’s that student debt I accumulated so that I could break into a generally low-paying profession. The central Pennsylvania realist in me recoils at these thoughts, and suddenly all I want to see on the menu is ketchup sandwiches (preferably complimentary ketchup snatched from the nearest McDonald’s franchise). I would do anything to avoid becoming dependent on other people’s charity.

One can see this reaction to personal finances as either incredibly ironic or deeply hypocritical. After all, when I preach, I preach about a God who provides for her children with abundance, and then I go on to denounce austerity policies in various legislatures. And full disclosure, I survive off of the generous support of my home church in Pennsylvania, family all over the country, and my stipend for one of my internships (yes, I said one of them). My personal austere attitudes simply matched neither my theology nor my lived experience.

These attitudes run deep in the American psyche. Patriarchy. Rugged individualism. Meritocracy through sheer grit and determination. And they run deep in my psyche, too.

The problem is that these attitudes are counter to my Christian faith and the kind of relationships I want to have with people—especially with my fiancée. I want to base my relationships on mutual love and respect. We trust that we will do what we say will, but we also share responsibilities, whether financial, household, or social. Together we worship God who gives abundant provisions to her children, and then we earnestly look where God is touching our world.

The scary part is that we can’t depend on just ourselves any more. While we are individual agents of creation in God’s world, we are meant to work together for the reign of God. Period. We give up control of our lives to God, and God works through ordinary events and ordinary folks around us to make sure we’re all okay. Because of our fallen nature, that system of communal care breaks down a lot. However, God still calls us to trust God and each other, even through the cloudy and stormy days.

The confession on top of Mount Bridgeport helped the two of us quite a bit. We were able to enjoy the beautiful weather and the prairie flowers  and the flying kites all over again. After all, isn’t that the surest sign that God still provides abundantly?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Peace, love, and justice: a dialogue

[Dialogue written and presented for Community United Methodist Church of Naperville, IL for vocational discernment service on July 21, 2013. Also posted at Rich Experiences.]

Joe: This is Kacie. She is southern girl from just north of Nashville, Tennessee.

Kacie: This is Joe, He is a Pensyltucky boy from the mountains of central Pennsylvania.

Joe: Kacie knows just about every country song on the radio and about every Nicholas Sparks-inspired movie in the theater.

Kacie:  Joe is not afraid of camping in the mountains where there are hundreds of bears, plus he is a big sports fan, maybe not the Chicago bears but definitely a Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

Joe: Kacie is an artist. She is very visual, very tactile. She sees scenes of color and texture and transforms ordinary things into works of art.

Kacie: Joe is very intellectual. He uses big words, mainly because his head is always stuck in a book. It’s a beautiful site to see him so concentrated on his reading. He reads books by authors like Paul Tillich and Alice Walker.

Joe: Kacie is also very passionate about justice for women.

Kacie: Joe is also very passionate about justice for workers.

Joe: And so it makes perfect sense—

Kacie: That we met in—

Both: Washington, D.C. at Ecumenical Advocacy Days.

Kacie: I feel that we both have a call to advocacy, which means joining with the voices of the poor, the weak and the marginalized to make change in our nation and world by speaking stories of truth in our communities to our local, state and national leaders.

Joe: We’ve both had strong religious experiences where we felt transformed by God—what John Wesley would call “justifying grace”—but we also continue to feel the Spirit move us toward acts of mercy and justice for people around us. Wesley called that part “social holiness.”

Kacie: One of the biggest issues we advocate for is poverty and food justice. We both help with a student and homeless ministry in the South Loop of Chicago. We have a community meal with students and people from the streets, make sandwiches together and walk the streets with our friends to pass out the sandwiches.

Joe: There’s this one community off Lower Michigan where about a half dozen homeless people usually sleep. Someone wrote a Bible verse on the wall there. We always drop off a couple of sandwiches for the folks there. Last week, they were all gone and the Bible verse had been painted over. We figure that the city had evicted them for the Taste of Chicago and a movie someone was filming.

Kacie:  This is community, and we feel like we are part of the community. We are all equal, and deserve equal treatment in our society. We go to our local, state and national leaders to remind them about our friends on the street. These are the stories of truth that make up our society.

Joe: Jesus and his followers also spent much of their ministry among the sick, the poor, the socially marginalized. As two followers of Jesus Christ in 21st century Chicago, we continue to practice ministry with our friends and neighbors—Black, white, Latino—

Kacie: Gay, lesbian, transgender—

Joe: Native born and immigrant—

Kacie: Rich and poor.

Joe: We are all one in Jesus Christ.
Kacie:  Last week I completed my internship with Bread forthe World, a national organization that works with churches to end hunger through advocacy. I am using this training to start a sewing ministry for homeless women.

Joe: And I’m in seminary, making my way through the process of becoming a United Methodist pastor. I’m finding ways to incorporate God’s call for justice in acts of preaching, teaching, and service.

Kacie: One thing I’ve done in response to my call to justice is write letters to my congressional representatives. I was able to do this through Bread for the World’s offering of letters program.  I invite you, too, to write a letter to your member of congress on issues dealing with food justice or just an issue you are very passionate about, especially if you cannot travel to DC or Springfield. Get a group of friends together and write an abundance of letters. This is definitely a way to raise your voice and speak for justice.

Joe: If you’d prefer a more direct action route for justice, I encourage you join with me and my friends at IIRON, a regional community organizing network. We’ve set up shanty-towns in Federal Plaza, had flash-mobs at the Apple store, and occupied abandoned properties to show how too much money is going to excessively wealthy corporations at the expense of our friends and neighbors.

Kacie: Even though Joe loves brown and his Carhartt jacket—

Joe: And Kacie loves pink and lace.

Kacie: Joe is very talkative,

Joe: Kacie is a bit more introverted.

Both: We both have a place at the Lord’s table with—

Joe: Peace

Kacie: Love

Both: and justice.

Kacie Greer and Joe Hopkins outside of Sen. Mark Kirk's office
 in Washington, D.C. They are now engaged and plan to marry in
June of 2014.