Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Annual Conference Caucus Sermon

It's been so long since I've posted...but I've been a busy girl. Working on my sermon for the Womaen's Caucus Luncheon at Annual Conference in the Church of the Brethren (forgive the exclusive language, this denomination has a ways to go yet in being enlightened in some areas). I've had some requests to post the sermon, so here 'tis. Back to more deliberate bloggage soon...

Winter Wheat
A Sermon Presented by Christen Pettit Miller on July 4, 2005 at the Womaen's Caucus Luncheon.

Listen to the poet Carlo Carretto:
How baffling you are, oh church,
And yet how I love you!

How you have made me suffer,
And yet how much I owe you!

I should like to see you destroyed,
And yet I need your presence.

You have given me so much scandal
And yet you have made me understand sanctity.

I have seen nothing in the world more
Devoted to obscurity, more compromised,
More false, and I have touched nothing more pure,
More generous, more beautiful.
How often I have wanted to shut the doors
Of my soul in your face, and how often
I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you, because
I am you, although not completely.

And where should I go?

I speak confessionally when I say that this is my lover’s quarrel with the church. I love it, and yet I feel so distanced. I find my home within its embrace, and yet it stifles me. It taught me what it means to be a follower of Christ, and then sometimes it slapped my hands when I tried to act on its teachings. I believe the church is at it’s most authentic, when it unashamedly follows the teachings of Jesus and yet when those ideals become idols, or mere words without action, there is no greater hypocrisy. I have come to recognize that I am not alone in my wrestling.

Last fall I received a phone call at home one evening after supper. Our house was aflutter with girls home from ballet class, one of whom was pirouting through the kitchen as my single-minded husband, who doesn’t do very well at multi-tasking, was fixing her macaroni and cheese. Our youngest child was regaling us with a blow-by-blow of her daily observations of the class bully, Eric D. while simultaneously carrying the miniature dachshund around the kitchen in what looked to be a rather compromising position. It was too much action for my little mind after a twelve hour shift at the hospital where I was a chaplain in an intensive care unit. In the midst of this chaos the phone rang. I picked it up quickly, pulling the cord out in the hallway with me to avoid ensnaring the piroutting eleven-year old or tangling up the dachshund and heard a voice ask, “Christen, would you like to be the speaker at the Womaen’s Caucus luncheon next year at annual conference?” I asked the speaker to repeat the question. She said, “If you’d like time to think about it you can call me back.” I quickly piped up that, “No, of course I didn’t need time, of course I would do it, of course, I would be honored. Yes! Yes!” And then I paused and said, “but what should I say?” She gave me the scripture and told me, I’m sure much more about the theme, but in the midst of that harried evening I wrote only these words, “message of hope…cloud of witnesses…we’re tired and weary.” Wide parameters for one who lives in ambiguity on the mere margins of this denomination. But I have recognized that I don’t live there alone. There are many others out here. I want to thank the Womaen’s Caucus steering committee for asking for my voice, the voice of one not born and bred in the Church of the Brethren with the standard Brethren purebred pedigree. The voice of one who no longer serves the denomination in pastoral ministry at a prominent church. The voice of one who has at times felt like a stranger in a strange land ( but a good land, a land of potlucks, a land where they like to eat lots and lots of ice cream).

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews was not unfamiliar with struggle. For Hebrews was written to a people whose hope and faith were feeling a little shaky. Eugene Peterson disarmingly shares the ancient writer’s purpose. He says in commentary on the text, “It seems odd to have to say so, but too much religion is a bad thing. We can’t get too much of God, can’t get too much faith and obedience, can’t get too much love and worship. But religion…can very well get in the way of what God is doing for us.” The people to whom this letter was addressed had, it seems, gotten caught up in this whole business of religion rather than in simply living their faith. But despite how wrong they may have gotten this religion business… they were still a well-meaning people who had been persecuted for what they believed. They were a people who had been imprisoned for their faith. They were a people who had seen their reputations sullied. Because they had spoken the truth that they knew, because they had witnessed to the abundant love and radical justice that Jesus offered, they found themselves alienated from the culture around them. This letter was written to refresh the weary, to remind them that they needed to persevere. It is a letter that could be written today for those who speak that same message of abundant love and radical justice and are instead met with hostility and cynicism and disregard.

And so the questions begin for us. How are we like those early readers of the letter to the Hebrews? And how are we to run the race and not grow weary? How are we to continue to preach the prophetic words of inclusion and justice when we are questioned with cold exclusion, hostile words, or a dismissive glance? How do we find it within ourselves to continue the work of Jesus, when we feel hopeless? When hope is hard to come by?

I confess that I am not a fan of the “WWJD?” phenomenon. All the products and paraphenalia. It may have started as a simple reminder to follow the steps of Jesus by wearing a simple cloth bracelet. And that’s fine. However, it’s been co-opted by a market economy that’s tried to commodify the very one who resisted commodities and lived a life of simplicity. I can’t imagine Jesus having his old wine poured into a new insulated state-of-the art decanter with “WWMD?”—“What Would Moses Do?”, embossed on it on gold-lettering while wearing his “WWMD?” baseball hat and hugging close to him his “WWMD?” plush teddy bear.

However, having said all that, I believe that asking what it is that Jesus would do in a given situation, and how it is that we can follow in the footsteps of our teacher is still an important question.

The first thing I suggest is that we remember that we cannot go it alone. When we look to our teacher, we see that Jesus pointedly surrounded himself with companions, even when those same disciples misunderstood his motives. When Jesus commanded his followers to spread the news of the gospel they went out two by two. The spiritual writer, Christina Baldwin, in her book Calling the Circle shares these words on the call to community, “All I know is that none of us can travel further by ourselves. Alone, our hearts become stony and guarded. Alone, we become frightened. Alone, each of us can only stand and watch the next tree go down, watch the child fold over in hunger or pain…and whatever intervention we make is not enough. But, when we are traveling in the company of many, then we are a great body that can affect change.”

But there are other reasons to find a space within community. In community, we can also be carried when we feel too weary to continue. The Quaker writer Parker Palmer reminds us that the beauty of community is such that when we reach the limits of our own capacity to love, community means trusting that someone else will be available to pick up where we have left off. Community is that safe and nurturing place which nurses our vision when we are too exhausted.

When I was beginning pastoral ministry, and facing ordination in the South Central Indiana district, I sat down before a Ministry Interviewing Committee. Our meeting was cordial, and I was pleased at how well the process seemed to be flowing until one of the committee members took her Bible out of a bag at her feet and placed it on the table. She rested her hand upon it, and said with conviction, “My Bible is clear on the teachings of homosexuality. Can you explain why you disagree?” The meeting went downhill from there, and I left wondering whether I would be granted ordination. I wept angry tears throughout most of that afternoon. At a board meeting at the church that evening I reported the painful interlude. The room was quiet. And softly, one of the board members spoke up and said, “Christen, let me pray for these people for you right now, because I can see you’re having a hard time praying for them.” Her reminder to me was the reminder that we do not have to go it alone. There are shoulders on which to rest our heavy heads, and arms to carry our limping bodies when we want to do the right thing, and are simply too weary to do so.

The second lesson is this: solitude is full of God. This is something Jesus knew. When we are at our weariest, when we are our most worn, we can seek solace to reconnect with our Creator. When we are left wondering if our work has any meaning, when we question whether our feeble voice speaks with more than a whisper, it is time to return to our God in solitude to renew our souls. It was Jesus who sought solace in the desert, in the hills, away from the crowds. It is in this quiet place away, in this Sabbath time apart, that we can find the peace within to return to the struggle. It is when we pull away and allow ourselves to crawl up into the lap of God to be cradled and rocked for awhile that we can eventually find the strength to walk back into the fray. We need not feel guilty for these moments, or days, or even years away if it renews us to keep the Spirit alive, to continue to follow the teachings of the Christ.

And finally our third lesson. If we follow Jesus, we recognize that we are called, we are commanded to speak truth to power. It was Jesus who spoke truth to the Pharisees about healing on the Sabbath. It was Jesus who turned over tables in the temple when he recognized a sacred space was being abused for commerce. We are empowered by a God who embraces the powerless to raise our voices against injustice and intolerance in every form. We are called to stomp our feet in righteous indignation when justice is not forthcoming. We should recognize our anger as a sacred summons from the living Christ.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of the founding mothers of the feminist movement. She was the writer of the Women’s Bible, which was an early feminist interpretation of the scriptures. Toward the end of her life, though, she was growing discouraged. For despite the many years of labor, despite the thousands of miles traveled in campaigning for suffrage across our nation, despite the many women she had inspired and taught, Stanton recognized a sad truth. She would never live to vote. It would not happen in her lifetime. Rather than be discouraged by this outcome, though, Stanton instead wrote these words, “We are sowing winter wheat which the coming spring will see sprout and which other hands than ours will reap and enjoy.” Winter wheat, indeed, for the first woman to cast a ballot did so eighteen years after Stanton’s death.

We who labor in the work that Womaen’s Caucus undertakes are sowing winter wheat. We may never reap and enjoy the seeds that we sow, but it is imperative that we continue the planting.

We sow winter wheat whenever we challenge church search committees who claim that they cannot allow a woman to pastor in their midst based only on her gender. May our daughters and granddaughters never know this kind of discrimination.

We sow winter wheat whenever we stand alongside our lesbian sisters and gay brothers and demand their full inclusion in ordination and celebrate their contributions to our communities of faith. May our daughters and granddaughters, our sons and grandsons take as a given the goodness of diversity.

We sow winter wheat everytime we choose to use inclusive language for our Creator when we preach and when we pray and when we sing. May our sons and grandsons, our daughters and granddaughters know God as more than just a masculine deity.

We sow winter wheat whenever we continue to remind our denomination that language shapes thought, and that for this reason we must find a new name that encompasses all of who we are as a sister and brother-hood. May our daughters and granddaughters always know inclusion, and may our sons and grandsons support such inclusion.

Sisters and brothers, we are sowing winter wheat as we remain committed to the values of Womaen’s Caucus, as we support it with our prayers and with our gifts. The struggle is not over, but we are not alone. Look around you at the companions sitting to your left and to your right and recognize that we are surrounded by a mighty cloud of witnesses. And when the day comes that our children gather the sheaths and bake the bread, all will enjoy a feast in the community of God.

In the name of Christ our liberator, may it be so.


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