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Witnesses to the Resurrection
April 22, 2012
This week I meet with some other ministers in Northwest Philadelphia. We gather every month to talk about what’s happening in our congregations, to reflect on our faith traditions, and share our stories. This week, we talked about a book that a local pastor had written about the story of Jonah. He talked about his process of researching the work of a 16th century reformer and this reformer’s understanding of the four chapter book of Jonah. One thing he stressed was that the way we understand words in the 21st century were not necessarily the way the 16th century reformers used the same words. The words of each generation are imbued with meaning, context, and their own stories. In reading words written 500 years ago, we must take that into consideration. That small but significant linguistic point, is—quite often—forgotten.
This conversation was on my mind as I read the gospel lesson this week. The text for this week is full of “spooky stuff.” Jesus is back—in resurrected form—and the disciples are pretty freaked out by it.
The disciples were gathered in this week’s text, and they were talking about how they had just encountered Jesus in their travels. The disciples talked together about how they didn’t realize it was Jesus when they met him on the road, until he broke bread, blessed it, and shared it with them. Then their eyes were opened and they understood. And as they were talking, Jesus appeared to them and said, “Peace be with you.” And scared them about to death. The text says they were startled and terrified, as if they’d seen a ghost.
If you’ve ever had one of those moments where you think you’ve seen something that you are pretty sure is not there—it’s terrifying. And a little embarrassing. Because rational minds do not believe in the spooky stuff. To say that it happened to you, that you saw something you weren’t supposed to see, is to risk folks thinking that you are not all there. Or that you are terribly impressionable.
But all of them in that room saw Jesus just appear and heard him say those strange words of discomfort, “Peace be with you.”
Jesus must have sensed that the disciples were trying to decide if this was really happening to them, because Jesus said to them, “Look at my hands and feet—it’s really me! I’m not a ghost—I’m flesh and bones. This is really happening.”
And while the disciples were happy to see Jesus, they were still skeptical. So Jesus asked for something to eat, and he ate it in front of them, as if to prove that he was not a ghost. And he talked with them, and connected the dots. He told them why his death happened, and what it meant. He helped them understand.
Jesus finished up by saying “You are witnesses to these things.”
So many words have taken on new, unintended meanings in our culture. Sin, for example, has become a matter of personal piety—something, or someone to avoid—rather than communal failings. Sin has become more about law than relationship.
There are some words in this text that bother me. The last sentence is most troublesome. Jesus says, “You are witnesses to these things.” That last sentence sounds like I have to do something really uncomfortable —like hand out chic tracts on the street, like stand on a box in the middle of downtown Philadelphia and declare that everyone was going to hell unless they believe. Witness. Witnessing has come to mean that we must pound people over the head with the “good news”. At a certain point, after being pounded repeatedly on the head, the news is no longer good. The news hurts and is quite unwelcome. Witnessing does not speak to the person’s needs—I’ve seen the witness become hurtful and judgmental.
This is what “witness” has come to mean in the Church.
And because we progressives have seen the destructive results of that kind of witnessing in the church, we’ve decided to reject the whole notion. We’ve decided to not witness at all. Not tell the story. We’ve decided that we were going to stop doing anything that remotely looks or sounds like anything related to this bad thing—witnessing.
But this is not what Jesus is talking about. We are not taking our bibles and banging them against people heads. We are not insistent that we know the whole truth, or that “this is the way it is.” We are simply saying what we’ve seen. That is quite different from the certainty of street preachers and the condemnation of chic tracts.
So, what is it that we are seeing? What do we see that says to you—God is here. God has made God’s self known to us. Christ is alive!
On Good Friday, I attended an interfaith service commemorating all the victims of gun violence in Philadelphia this year. While we remembered the death of gun victims, we remembered the death of Jesus, who also died violently.
This is the second year I’ve gone to this service and I’ll confess that I do not it. It’s hard to go because there are always counter demonstrator that do all they can to break up the peaceful gathering. Last year, they hired an ice cream truck to come and play the ice cream truck music while we prayed and sang and mourned. It was very clever, I thought. But really distracting.
This year, the counter protestors decided to turn their car alarms on at the same time. It provided a difficult obstacle up against our meager sound system. But, in the distraction, and in the fear and anger towards the counter protesters, at some point in the gathering, I sensed a calm about our group. We were focused, prayerful, alert. It felt as if Jesus had breathed, “Peace be with you” on the community. We began a little spooked and nervous by what we were seeing around us, but as we prayed, we sensed calm, even as the counter demonstrators screamed and taunted us. We were empowered to witness to God’s holy peace in the world. We prayed for a day when God’s peace was fully known, and we began to hope together that it could happen.
Even on Good Friday, when we wondered why Jesus had to be killed at the hands of the empire, we had a sense of hope, a sense that we were seeing God at work, we had seen the possibilities of what could happen, should we all raise our voices together and witness to the hope we have in Christ.
Last week, I had an opportunity to speak at Princeton Seminary with John Linscheid and Randy Spaulding. We led seminarians and a few Germantown Mennoniters in singing together songs of hope—we sang some favorites—“My life flows on” and “Praise God from whom all Blessings flow” and “God of the Bible.” And Randy, John and I gave our testimony. We talked about the power of the story here at Germantown Mennonite, of being removed from conference, of being removed from the body of Christ. John and Randy talked about no longer having ministerial credentials because they decided to live their lives in the light.
I was a little nervous to speak—I have been intimately aquainted with these stories for so long that I forgot that they had power. I forgot that our stories were meaningful, that our witness meant something. But, that evening was a powerful reminder to me that we need to keep witnessing to the resurrection.
We need to keep pointing out those places where we see God at work, where we notice Jesus’ breath of peace on us, and God’s presence at work among us.
We do not need to stand on street corners, or beat people over the head with our bibles. In fact, I’d recommend against it. But Jesus calls us to witness to these things, to testify, to point out, and to make known those places where we have seen Jesus.
This is truly what this season of Easter is all about. We witness to the resurrection. We identify the hope we have because of this story. We keep telling it. And telling it. And in doing that, we open each others eyes to more hope and more light and more signs of the reign of God all around us.
Being witnesses to these things—it’s like a muscle. We must keep using it, or the muscle becomes weak. Witnessing to these things is going to feel awkward and uncomfortable at first—perhaps because we are living by this false definition of “witness” that we have come to accept. But Jesus calls us to share our story, to remember, to be witnesses to what we have seen.
In a few weeks—on May 6th, we’ll have an opportunity in worship to share our own stories of hope and resurrection. I invite you to think about your own stories of hope and come ready to share them. There will be no sermon on May 6th—your stories are the sermon.
Let us together, during this Easter Season, resurrect our witness, redeem that word from those that seek to overpower with their certainty. Let us together, during this Easter season, witness with fresh eyes and confident loving voices, to the incredible ways God is being made known to us. AMEN.
Hester Prynne and I have something in common. Hester, the main character of Nathanial Hawthorne’s classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, was forced to wear a scarlet A on her chest, a sign of her sins and of her tarnished reputation. I don’t wear a scarlet A, but I have joked in the past few years, while I was attending seminary and looking for a job in the Mennonite church, that I wore a scarlet GMC, a sign of my association with Germantown Mennonite church, the congregation I began attending in 1996, and have been pastoring since 2010.
I didn’t come to Germantown intending to be an ally, or to make any kind of political or theological stand. I came to Germantown Mennonite because I was angry and hurting, and needed a safe place to be. I wasn’t convinced that there was such a church, but I thought I’d give Germantown Mennonite a try, and see if I could stand to be there.
In 1996, my mom died of cancer at the age of 45. Her four year battle with cancer was my introduction to adulthood. Crises like this should not have to happen to a young adult—it really messes with one’s sense of identity, relationship to God and to the church.
When my mom was dying, I was asking “why is this happening” and the response from my home congregation and other Christians was one of utter certainty—“She didn’t have enough faith”, “Everything happens for a reason”, “God needed her in heaven.”
Seminarians, in case you haven’t learned this lesson yet, NEVER say these things to people that are dealing with tragedy and life altering experiences. You risk being punched in the face, or worse, you risk people never coming to church again.
Those responses from my ever certain church community did not work for me, and I was very happy to leave my home and move to Philadelphia. And when I arrived, I went looking for a church in Philadelphia that could handle me and my vast baggage.
I visited Germantown in June of 1996, and I had never been to a service like this before. There were no answers from the pulpit. There were questions, there was real feeling, real sharing. There was no veneer of social propriety—it was raw at Germantown Mennonite. This church embodied all that I was feeling. I felt safe to bring my questions and anger there.
When I started attending GMC, the congregation was in the process of being removed from their conference and—as a result—the denomination, because they were welcoming queer folks into membership. The end of that relationship was imminent, but people were still pretty hopeful that allies would stand up against the conservative wing of the church. I didn’t know much about the struggle when I started attending the church—and if I’m really honest with myself—I didn’t care. What I cared about was that I was finally in a safe space to be angry, to ask questions, and to cry. I didn’t have to worry about judgment from the congregation, because my questions were their questions.
Soon after I arrived, the congregation was indeed removed from the conference. By secret ballot—which was not in keeping with their polity. Conference ministers came down to share the official news with us. And because after a year with them, I was so bonded to the congregation, I could not stay away from this meeting. My friends—gay and straight—were hurting, and would be devastated by this news. I had to be there with them.
I went to this meeting, and cried tears of anger with my gay brothers. I watched with disbelief as Ken, a gay man in the congregation, insisted that these conference ministers finish what they started, and walk him out of the church. I watched as our pastor, a straight ally, demanded the same. If the conference was removing this congregation from fellowship, they would have to do it with more than words. They would have to show us what it meant. They would need to understand themselves what it meant to remove us from the body of Christ.
Being in that meeting on that terrible night bonded me forever to the people of Germantown Mennonite Church. You can’t hear the news of the vote, watch your queer and allied friends get walked out of the church and not be moved. You can’t cry with people in their pain, and not have an emotional connection to them.
After we heard the news, and the conference ministers left, we sat together, then did what Mennonites do—we sang. We turned to “My Life Flows On”, and ironic and poignant choice for the occasion.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging
If love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
I never would have imagined that night as a 23 year old woman, sitting in that room, singing and crying with my sisters and brothers from Germantown, that I would end up in seminary, called to pastoral ministry.
But it was the folks, and especially the gay men, from the congregation that said to me, many times, “Why aren’t you in seminary?” and “You know you are called, right?” They recognized in me the call to the ministry that I couldn’t—or rather didn’t want to—see. It was the people of GMC that gave me my letters, sent me out to seminary, and told me to wear them with pride.
When I entered seminary, it didn’t occur to me that it would be that difficult to find a job in the denomination. Even though Germantown was no longer a member of the Mennonite Church USA, we still considered ourselves Mennonite. I still consider myself Mennonite. But others within the denomination began to name for me the difficulty I would experience. One pastor I met said to me blatantly, “How in the hell do you ever expect to get a job in the Mennonite church with GMC on your resume?”
I could feel the scarlet GMC burning on my chest for the first time. I knew there was truth in what he said. My spirit was crushed. Could I get a job? Was I just throwing away money on this seminary degree I’d never be able to use?
This question gave me great anxiety. I’ll admit it was tempting to try to cover up the scarlet GMC, to hide where I came from, to downplay the people that nurtured me to new faith. But I just couldn’t do that. I couldn’t hide where I’d come from, even though I was advised by folks in the denomination to do so. This congregation was my community, my family, and because of the bonds we had and the gift they were to me, I couldn’t hide my status—I am an ally.
My status does come at a cost. Before interviewing at Germantown, I interviewed for a job at a little Mennonite church just outside of Philadelphia. One of the reasons I didn’t get it is because they were worried I’d bring the queers with me. If they couldn’t handle the scarlet GMC, they were not ready for me to be their pastor.
By God’s grace I was called to Germantown Mennonite, as the pastor. I pastor at one of the few Mennonite congregations that can, at this point, handle my scarlet letters. I pastor the congregation that gave me the scarlet letters.
There is a cost to being an ally. There is a cost to associating with a congregation that had the audacity to baptize and welcome queer folks into membership, and that ordained a gay man (a graduate of Princeton, and former leader of BGLASS, I might add). It will limit your opportunities in ministry. It may cause you some discomfort, some awkward conversations with search committees.
But, when I look at what Randy Spaulding and John Linscheid have dealt with in their lives—coming out as pastors, losing their credentials, being shamed and condemned—I think a few awkward conversations, and some limited opportunities are well worth it. It is the least I can do, to say thank you.
As followers in the way of Jesus, we cannot forget that the path before us will not be easy. The things we choose to stand for will alienate us, and often times, they will put us at odds with our denomination. But we are not followers of the Presbyterians, or the Mennonite or the Espiscopals, or whatever denomination with which you align. We are followers of Jesus, who calls us to the margins, who calls us to remember, who calls us stand with our brothers and sisters, no matter what the cost.
This scarlet GMC, the label I’ve been given as an ally, comes at a cost. But, my friends, the benefit far outweighs the cost. The gift I’ve been given at Germantown Mennonite has saved me, given me hope, and has shown me the way of Jesus, a way I couldn’t see anywhere else.
Like Hester Prynne, I lovingly embroider my scarlet letters, embellish them with the beauty that has been shared with me in my congregation. I could choose, like the minister in the Scarlet Letter—Arthur Dimmsdale—to be silent about my associations. But, we know what happened to Dimmsdale. That kind of denial and silence can only result in death.
As resurrection people, we know the joy that comes in our true selves being fully in the light. Let us live this Easter season, fully in the light, our true selves and our true allegiances known before all. Let us live in the light, queer and allies together, no matter what the cost.
April 8, 2012—Easter Sunday
As people of the book, we believe in the power of stories. We have experienced the power of transformative stories in lent, as we talked about the cross, and as the cross became personal for many of us. We heard Jay Burkholder talk about the experience of making this cross, which showed up unexpectedly last week. We heard Ken White talk about the cross, with its embracing arms. Katie Ernst described the cross as a reminder of God’s familiarity with our pain—but she did not let God off the hook. She lingered with many doubts about God and God’s power.
Lent was a time for us to reflect on the cross, examine its meaning in our story. But, thankfully, with the stripping of the table and its new symbols in place, lent is over, and we are reminded that this story does not end with the cross. The cross was the confusing, low point in the story. Today, and for the next 50 days of Eastertide, we celebrate the empty tomb. We celebrate the resurrected Christ.
How do we get from the cross to the resurrection? I wish it were as easy as just switching around a few symbols. How do we get from death to life, from abandonment to hope? It’s hard to switch gears, to move from the reflective and the penitential to the rejoicing, praising, and boisterous song singing that we rightly do today.
In our story from the gospel of John, three characters made the transition—from the cross to the resurrection—in three very different ways. Mary came to the tomb early that morning to pay her respects, and when she discovered the tomb was empty, she ran to tell the other disciples. Later, after she returned to the tomb with two of the disciples, Mary sat by the Jesus’ grave, crying. When Jesus came to her, she didn’t even recognize him, until he called her by name. “Mary!” And then the a-ha moment, the moment of realization and recognition. “Rabbi!”
Peter and the other disciple, the disciple Jesus loved, heard the news from Mary and ran to the tomb. The other disciple got there first, but didn’t enter the tomb. When Peter arrived, he walked fearlessly into the tomb, saw the funeral clothing askew, but we don’t know what he thought about it. The other disciple came in after Peter, surveyed the scene and understood and believed immediately.
We don’t know what Peter thought when he surveyed the resurrection scene. But the other disciple understood—his eyes opened to the new reality. And Mary—her response was to assume that someone has taken away the body of Jesus. But it took Jesus calling her name for Mary to understand what had really happened.
I wonder what made it so easy for the beloved disciple to so readily believe, what made it so difficult for Mary, and I wonder why we have no response from Peter. Why such different reactions from these three disciples?
All throughout the gospel of John, Jesus encountered people that were at different places in their faith journeys. Nicodemus, that rich leader that came to Jesus in the night, had many questions for Jesus about what it meant to be born again. But Jesus did not judge Nicodemus. Jesus knew how hard it was for him. Jesus was simply present, explaining his presence, his light, in the world.
Later in John 20, Thomas told his fellow disciples “Unless I see the mark of his nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” And Jesus did not judge. He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.
Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.” There was no judgment there. Jesus met Thomas in his disbelief, and called him to belief, in whatever way Thomas could get there. Even if it meant that Thomas would put his hand in Jesus’ wounds.
All throughout the gospel of John, we meet characters that believe and do not, folks that find it easy to follow Jesus and believe his claims, and those that find it very difficult. And for all those that were truly seeking, really trying to understand, to believe, and to follow, Jesus showed compassion.
Jesus saved his venom for those that were sure they knew the truth, those that had made the law their idol, those that lacked compassion. Jesus saved his outrage, anger and vitriol for the religious leaders who had lost sight of belief in favor of perfection, in favor of the law.
But for Mary, Jesus saw her confusion, her disbelief, and he called her by name. Disbelieving Mary, unsure Mary—she was the one who was called to tell the disciples the good news. She was the first person that day to really see Jesus.
And for Peter who—for once—was silent, Jesus gave Peter a most important role. Peter became the rock of the church. The church was built on the denial of Peter, the questions and confusion of Peter, this loud and impulsive disciple.
So often, I long to be that disciple that Jesus loved, the one that came to the tomb, saw Jesus’ burial gowns eschew, and got it. I wish it were that easy for me. I wish I didn’t have the questions of Mary, the doubts of Thomas, and the silence of Peter. I wish I looked at the world every day and saw the resurrection, and saw the transforming power of God breaking into our world. Some days all I see is the cross, the brokenness of the world. And some days that is where the story of Jesus’ life ends for me.
I am encouraged today to know that God does not judge our unbelief, that God is not discouraged by our questions. Instead God keeps calling us and working with us. And according to this story, the more our unbelief, the more opportunities we have to serve, to follow, to be called.
Today we celebrate the resurrection—we rejoice that death could not hold Jesus in the cold tomb. Today we sing, and rightly so—Christ is alive, Up from the grave he arose, Lift your Glad voices in triumph on high. We sing because we believe in the resurrection. We sing, even though we have doubts. We sing and pray, through our questions, our wondering, our silence. And God honors that.
Blessed are you, people of the resurrection. Blessed are you in your doubts and questions, in your misgivings and confusion. Blessed are you, people of the resurrection. For in your doubts, God calls you by name. In your silence, God works with you. In your belief, God rejoices. Blessed are you, people of the resurrection. Rejoice and be glad! You are being transformed by this story! Christ is alive, and God will reveal God’s self to you, in your belief and in your unbelief. AMEN.
What can I do?