Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Longing for Emmanuel and Sophia

Immanuel is Hebrew for "God with us," as well as a name applied to Jesus.  Sophia is Greek for wisdom. Jesus came in the wisdom tradition. Jesus is God-with-us. I could use a little of both right now.

My heart is grieving.

Saturday I participated in the Transgender Day of Remembrance, where we lit nearly 300 candles in memory of the people who have been killed in transgender hate crimes since Nov. 20, 2013. We watched an eloquent powerpoint slide show that included individual names, how they died, and where their bodies were found. So moving to sit with so many people, watching the names and hearing the music. I talked to parents of a transgender daughter who is being treated well at school, so I am thankful. I wish all transgender people had loving parents.

Sunday we listened to the director of our local teenager homeless outreach program, Tumbleweed, thank our church for the donations we make. It shook us all up to hear the statistics on homeless kids, and that some are sleeping in caves in the rims. They stay alive on below zero nights by wearing 6 coats. Sheri told me that the vast majority of kids leave home because at least one of their parents are doing drugs, or their parents kicked them out because they were LGBTQI. I preached “Let’s be clear what God’s plan is” and quoted these texts.

Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.                                               Micah 6:8

They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity.                                                             Isaiah 65:21-23a

The Bible teaches us that it is not God’s will
for adults to be so blinded by addiction or alcoholism
that they can’t care for their children,
for parents to be so fearful of their children who are L or G or B or T or any kind of Q
that they will abandon them.
It’s not God’s will
for any children to be turned out of their homes.

Monday, once again, Ferguson Missouri. There was an impromptu vigil Monday night at our courthouse here in Billings. I couldn’t go—I had to pick up my daughter from work. I wish I could have been there, holding a candle.

Tuesday, I wrote the liturgy for our Blue Christmas service that honor people’s grief at Christmastime. We’re giving out blue angel ornaments for people to take home, and having people light candles in memory.

I am full of grief and prayers for loss, discrimination, racism, and injustice. 

I so appreciated what Michael Brown’s family said: Don’t make noise. Make a difference.

Last weekend was Not In Our Town Billings’ Summit on Hate: Challenging Discrimination. I passed out a paper that listed these resources that had changed the way I thought, preached, and acted. Here they are. I hope you look at some of them.  Share them. Let them make a difference in your life and encourage you to make a difference in the world. 

Resources that Helped Me Figure Out Privilege and Challenge Discrimination
assembled by Susan Barnes, ally-in-the-making

Everything on the Not In Our Town Website

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack– Peggy McIntosh – a classic (1988) that looks at racism and white privilege from the viewpoint of a white woman who has experienced sexism

Here’s one helpful response to “Why do all (insert race here) people look alike?” from a Chicago curmudgeon

“Playing with privilege: the invisible benefits of gaming while male” by Jonathan McIntosh, video game player

 “Daily effects of straight privilege” by straight-identified students at Earlham College

“10 Examples of Ability Privilege” by Shannon Ridgway  -- helpful for TABs (Temporarily Able-Bodied)

 “I Stayed in the Closet So I Could Benefit from Straight Privilege” by Marissa Higgins, March 21, 2014

 “The Invisibility of Upper Class Privilege” 1997, by Class Acts at Women’s Theological Center.  College students list privileges they recognized themselves. http://www.thewtc.org/Invisibility_of_Class_Privilege.pdf

 “30+Examples of Cisgender Privilege” Sam Killerman, author of a book on how to stand up against gender-based oppression.  http://www.guidetogender.com/ and


 “If Black People Said The Stuff White People Say”

 “If Latinos Said The Stuff White People Say”

“If Asians Said The Stuff White People Say”

“If Gay Guys Said the Stuff Straight People Say”

“Racism Insurance”

Other helpful links:

“Pronoun Do’s and Don’ts”

“Practicing My Shut-Ups: A Spiritual Discipline for Being An Ally”

 “How Should You Respond to a Racist Comment?” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5576785

Thursday, September 11, 2014

9/11 and now

I remember being telephoned by a newspaper reporter (not the one I’m married to) on 9/11/01. She asked me for some comments on what people can do. I said “I’ll call you back in 15 minutes.” I phoned my friend Tracy, a chaplain who worked in Oklahoma City when the Murrah building was bombed. She didn’t have much time to talk, because she was organizing a prayer vigil. (That was the first helpful bit of information she had for me. I organized a prayer vigil that night at our church.) She advised me: “Don’t send teddy bears to the hospitals. They have enough to do without dealing with ‘things.’ Don’t obsess over the TV. Get exercise. Take a walk. Be with people. Don’t isolate yourself. Pray.” So I repeated her eloquent words to the reporter. My interview made the front page and bumped my husband’s story from the Red Cross off the paper. 

My non-white friends and acquaintances experienced racist actions and words. They wore and put up American flags in case anyone questioned their patriotism. A Pakistani-American couple put a sign in their motel window: “100% American owned.” I heard racist comments from neighbors and, sad to say, church members. My child’s preschool teacher thought the solution to 9/11 was to bomb Iraq. All of it.

After the prayer vigil, I started a quilt of the NYC skyline for my friend Elaine who lived in NYC. Our Sunday School and preschool sent pictures and letters to a member’s son in Washington DC, to the Medical Examiner’s office in NYC, and to my friend Elaine. My three-year-old daughter, who was fond of the Goosebumps books and videos, drew a picture of a “machine that turns werewolves into good people.”

Prejudice has prospered since 9/11. I have felt like a lone voice. This is the first time I’ve lived in a city where a community of people are committed to organizing events to stop hate, expose and expel prejudice, and teach and learn how to be allies. Tonight I am going to my second Not In Our Town board meeting. With them, I don’t have to put up with sexism, racism, classism, homophobia or transphobia. When someone who wants to be an ally mis-speaks, they get corrected, they apologize (no excuses—just an apology!) and we all keep going. Instead of always being the one who teaches it, I get to learn. It is freeing. I am thankful.

Many in the group have been hurt by a church and/or cruel Christians and so are atheists. My pastoral presence surprises them. I feel Jesus next to me at these meetings as we talk about ways to protect the powerless and challenge the powerful. I have the joyful privilege of being a representative of God’s love to people who don’t think they deserve it. I rejoice at the work of the spirit.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Connections to Ferguson, Missouri

I am geographically far from Ferguson, Missouri.
My husband’s last name is Ferguson.

Michael Brown was the young victim on August 9, 2014.
My husband’s first name is Mike.

Journalists have been arrested by police in Ferguson, MO.
My husband is a journalist.

So I feel unusually connected to this event so far from home. I sent e-mails to the pastors and staff of the five PCUSA churches closest to Ferguson to let them know I’m praying for them. I heard from one pastor who asked me to pray for a hard rain, because that will keep the police and the people off the streets. 

I’m working on my sermon that includes conversations mothers have with their African-American sons, tweets from Gaza to Ferguson that offer advice on how to survive tear gas, and my friends’ posts about their relationships with police. I’m preaching on Psalm 133, “how blessed is it when sisters and brothers dwell in unity” when unity seems far away.  I’m preaching on Jesus’ problematic prejudicial words to the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15. I’m praying for justice and peace, and for all to recognize that racism is still a huge problem, fifty years after Freedom Summer.  And I’m praying for my sisters and brothers in Ferguson, Missouri.

 “Without justice, there is no peace, there are just pieces.”
Elias Chacour, Ibillin, Palestine, to my seminary group, January 1989.

“May we be the peacemakers and the life affirmers
who are harbingers of the Beloved Community.
 In the name of the Most Holy we pray.”

Richard Gilbert, Prayers for Victims of Violence

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How General Assembly's Work Affected Me

During a Sunday I was on vacation, three people who attended General Assembly in Pittsburgh preached at St. Andrew.  After I read what Doug Johnson said, I asked him if I could post his words on this blog and he said yes. Here it is.

“My soul cries out with a joyful shout
That the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
That you bring to the ones who wait.
You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight,
And my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?”
                                                                           “Canticle of the Turning” by Rory Cooney

Susan asked me if I would say something about how General Assembly’s work has affected me personally. I have loved the Presbyterian Church for many years. Most of the churches we attended while I was growing up were Presbyterian and those memories are largely positive ones of family fellowship, youth groups and summer camp. It was on a backpacking trip into the Sierras with our church in Coalinga, CA that I first committed my life to Christ. As I became aware at age 14 of homosexual feelings it was our summer youth assistant who was the first person I confided in. He was compassionate, caring and gave me a scripture passage which reminded me to keep my life holy. The relief I felt was paramount as I realized that he wasn’t going to condemn me to hell, but as I’ve reflected on that over the years I realize that he was also telling me that the feelings I felt were wrong. At the time this did not bother me as I felt they were wrong, too. I prayed earnestly that God would heal me of this and yet over the years it became very clear to me that, however much I prayed and read scripture, those feelings were here to stay.

As I grew older I developed a strong desire and call to be a minister and all through college this was in the back of my mind as what I’d like to do. In the 70’s I was involved in a Baptist Church, went to a Christian and Missionary Alliance College and a Baptist seminary. In each of these places I got a subtle and not so subtle sense that what I felt within myself was wrong. In the 80’s and 90’s the religious right made it very plain that what I experienced as my nature was an abomination. Not just a ritual impurity as that word means in Leviticus, but something God hates. This kind of rhetoric was one of the factors that pushed me away from conservative evangelicalism, because as I got older I began to feel that a just God would not create feelings in someone which were unchangeable only to damn them for those feelings. I began to come to an acceptance of myself as I was and I still wanted to serve in the ordained ministry. About 1978 as the Presbyterian Church began to look at this subject it seemed more hopeful in the Presbyterian Church than with more conservative Christians. At least the Presbyterians were willing to study it. But soon the message came across there as well that gay people should pray and change.

When I finished at the Baptist seminary with an MA I rejoined the Presbyterian Church and determined that I would go for ordination. I entered San Francisco Theological Seminary and met many people, students and teachers alike, who also believed that gay and lesbian people should be able to serve in the pastorate. On graduating from SFTS I was ordained and assumed my first call in a small church in rural Iowa, population 1,400 (the town, not the church). I sometimes would jokingly say that today a voice crying out in the wilderness isn’t a prophet. It’s a single person in a rural church. Aside from the loneliness and isolation of this place, I also had a secret that could totally discredit me if it came out. More than any place I’d been I learned the reality of the closet. Sometime in these years a clause had been added in the Book of Order specifying that ministers were to be faithful in heterosexual marriage and celibate in singleness. At this juncture I no longer believed homosexuality to be a sin. I recognized that the biblical passages usually cited were out of context. But the church and the denomination I served thought differently and so I served as best I could and feared lest the wrong people found out I was gay. I moved to Wisconsin and served another church there for six years. I was able to be a little more open but I still had to be careful. When I left Wisconsin I did two years of Clinical Pastoral Education at the Mayo Clinic and stayed with a family who were very accepting. The woman was a Presbyterian minister and a nurse. Her husband was a musician. They had four cats. Jane and I together started a Metropolitan Community Church as an outreach to the gay community in Rochester. Jane was totally straight but I had not found a better ally. For the first time in Rochester I was able to actually be out of the closet and it felt great!

When I moved to Montana in 1999 I again went into the closet because I was unsure how I would be received in a conservative presbytery like Yellowstone. This came to an end in 2002 when I came out at a presbytery meeting. At first I was terrified and I felt extremely vulnerable. But gradually I realized that the people here were not going to throw me out. Over the years it has felt wonderful to be open about myself. When we discussed related issues at presbytery it felt good to be able to speak openly and not to cower in fear. When the PC(USA) removed the fidelity/chastity provision it passed our presbytery by a very narrow margin. Being asked to serve as a commissioner at GA was a great honor for me and I was heartened by the amount of support, both gay and straight that there was at GA. More Light Presbyterians gave out and blessed rainbow shawls and stoles to show support, and many, many people were wearing them.

GA passed an authoritative interpretation allowing ministers in states where it is legal to perform same-sex weddings. This ruling is not mandatory for those who don’t believe in this. But as our society becomes more and more open to LGBT people it is good news for me to know that our denomination can accommodate this change. An amendment will be coming to us that will seek to define marriage as a union of two people, traditionally a man and a woman. This wording provides wiggle room to expand, not change the meaning of marriage. My hope is that we can pass this because living a life and a ministry single and approaching retirement alone is something I hope won’t have to be mandatory for others who have a call to ministry. I would like to recommend two books, both by conservative evangelicals who once opposed gay acceptance in the church. The first is The Bible’s YES to Same-Sex Marriage. This is by Mark Achtmeier who taught theology and ethics at Dubuque Theological Seminary for fifteen years. The other is by Jack Rogers, Professor of Theology Emeritus at SFTS. His book is entitled Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality, Explode the Myths, Heal the Church.

We did many other great things at GA, but for me personally the growing openness of the church to these matters is a highlight.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Fairness for ALL Families Rally

Last month, our church hosted Fairness for ALL Families, a celebration and rally for the nondiscrimination ordinance in Billings. At the celebration I asked people what it meant for them to have this event at a church. Here are some of the comments:

·       It means everything to me. I had evangelical Christian parents, so it means a lot that a church hosted this.

·       A reconciling church brought me out of darkness.

·       This is an amazingly beautiful place with grass for children, and we can come indoors to cool off.

·       To know that faith leaders are behind this means a lot.

·       I love the community garden.

·       What a beautiful sanctuary.

Many people, young and old, thanked me. I didn’t do much except get newsprint to cover tables and point where the bathroom was. People were respectful of the church building. Sabrina Currie, who works at Tumbleweed, told me that about half of the homeless kids the agency worked with have been kicked out of their home for being LGBT. Joan Nye, at the suicide prevention training, said that LGBT youth are at risk for dying by suicide. So for our church to provide a space for LGBT people and their allies to come and paint faces, fly kits, hula hoop, make signs, and simply be together, was life-giving.

A week later, an unchurched commuter to Billings told me she was glad to see we had hosted the event. Another who came to Art in Sacred Space, but hasn’t come to worship yet, told me “I was glad to see my church reaching out and doing good.” I was surprised that she considered this her church, but she does. A young newcomer told me how great it is that this church isn’t fighting over LGBT Q issues. Another young newcomer was so happy about it she brought her mother (visiting from out of state) to come to our labyrinth. She said it was the best outdoor labyrinth she’d ever seen.

Our ministry isn’t just to people who come to worship, but who drive by the building, come to the garden, walk the labyrinth, and go by our sign.

Following Jesus and meeting the challenge of the gospel isn’t always easy. So it’s nice to hear comments along the way about the difference we are making.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Lent and Maundy Thursday

What a lovely Maundy Thursday service. The tables in the Garden Room were set  with purple tablecloths and white washcloths, cups, and spoons that looked so welcoming.  We read  the footwashing story in John 13. We couldn’t wash our neighbor’s feet for logistical reasons, so we washed each others’ hands.  At the tables, we used thermos carafes to pour warm water on our neighbor’s hands, over large bowls.  On this cool night, it was good to feel the warm water. The water was scented with the basil we grew during Lent.  Washing one another’s hands was brief and powerful.   Here is our grace:

Holy God, these 38 days of Lent, we have spoken of growing in the spirit; we’ve nurtured seeds to remind us that we have to nurture our souls, paying attention to what feeds us, turning toward the light of Christ, taking in the living water. May the scent and flavor of the basil remind us of the joy we find in serving you; may the microgreens nourish our bodies to do your work. Bless the hands that grew, transported, and prepared all the food we are to eat tonight; we pray for the day when everyone has enough. Amen.

The microgreens we grew were garnish for our three kinds of homemade soup.  We had a real meal  together, talking and laughing and breaking a LOT of bread.  A visitor came in to join us.  We finished worship by serving one another communion and singing “No end there is! We depart in peace. He loves beyond our uttermost.” It’s easy to feel God’s love surrounded by people who welcome visitors, and work so quickly to clean up, and find joy being together.
Pastor Susan

Noah, the Movie

I’ve read some articles and blogs on the movie Noah.

Noah (2014) Poster
What some of the critics don’t mention is that for director Darren Aranofsky, the story of Noah is about justice and mercy. Aronofsky used part of the story of Noah and the ark as a vehicle to explore what evil is;  how meting out justice for those who do evil hurts the innocent;  what it means to follow God’s will when you aren’t sure what it is;  and how to explain Noah’s rejection of his son Ham. 

He also threw in the legends found in The Book of Enoch, a Jewish book written in Ethiopic, with fragments of Greek and Latin. Some Orthodox Christian and Jewish communities that are ethnically Ethiopian, the Book of Enoch, didn’t make the Jewish or the Christian Bible. That’s why the stories of the fallen ones / watchers seem unfamiliar to us.

Genesis 6:4 says  “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.” Nephilim is a Hebrew word that can mean something like “fallen ones.” The Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, uses the Greek word for ‘giants’ to translate Nephilim. The King James Version translates ‘nephilim’ as ‘giants in the earth.’

The people of the Bible, Jews and Christians, have questions about what this text means. To help me interpret texts,  I like researching what ancient near eastern writers have said about the same subject, and what archeology, botany, geology, farmers, cookbook writers and gardeners have had to say.

               But other people find meaning in writing stories about what the Bible leaves out. We have the Catholic legend of Veronica, who wiped Jesus’ face on his way to the cross, leaving his bloody faceprint on her cloth. We have the Jewish legend of Lilith, Adam’s first wife.  Moviemakers also fill in the blanks of a Bible story. Noah’s makers turned it into disaster movie.

               The Movie The Passion of the Christ was a conservative Catholic interpretation on Jesus death. Some Christians find spiritual succor in the great suffering Jesus endured. The more he suffered, the more we are saved. So the movie showed in bloody detail how Jesus suffered to emphasize how great is our salvation. The movie advertised itself as showing what actually happened. The problem with that is the four gospel accounts of the crucifixion don’t agree with each other about what actually happened. For the moviemakers to claim that is presumptuous.

               So I was glad to hear that Noah’s director said that his movie was an interpretation.  The moviemakers aren’t pretending this is the one true story of Noah. They filled in gaps in the Noah story with what would make a good movie. Movies can do violence well—surround sound, CGI, and big screens give moviegoers a visceral experience. Violence is cheaper than dialog—you don’t have to pay screenwriters to write it, actors to say it nor camera operators to film it take after take. And violence doesn’t need any translating for the overseas market. So there’s violence in the movie Noah that isn’t in the Biblical story.

               I appreciated the way they didn’t skip over the wicked people left behind in the flood—that’s the question most of us have about Noah—was Noah and his family really the only group that was innocent? What about the children? The characters wrestled with that.

Aside from the unnecessary violence, and the plot change, I was bothered that the cast was only white people. It is, after all, a Semitic story, and Ham is to be the father of Canaan, the ancestor of the people of Ethiopia and Sudan (Cush), Libya (Put), and Egypt. 

I wasn’t surprised they skipped the story where  God commanded Noah to bring in seven pairs of clean animals and one pair each of unclean animals (Genesis 7:2,3).

               A lot of what we think we know about the Bible is from movies, books, paintings and legends. Before we complain about how other people are interpreting the Bible, it’s always a good idea for us to read it for ourselves.  For me, it’s a tale of how the people of the earth began.  It’s a story about how Mesopotamia was peopled, since to the writers of Genesis, Mesopotamia was the whole earth. Archeological evidence shows that a severe flood covered Mesopotamia in 3000 bce.

For me, the Biblical story isn’t about the details of constructing an ark and how God decided who was good. It is about God’s decision never again to wipe out humanity. The symbol of it is a bow in the clouds. The bow is upside down, to show it’s hung up and won’t be used anymore. For us, perhaps it would be like locking away an AK-47. God is not going to commit violence anymore.

For evangelical Christians, the story is about Jesus—all the stories in the Hebrew Bible are about Jesus.  For me, the stories in the Hebrew bible are best understood if we look at them in their own context. The writers of the newer testament referenced those stories, quoted (and misquoted) from them. We can’t understand the newer testament until we read the Hebrew Bible, the Bible Jesus knew.
Pastor Susan



Thursday, March 27, 2014

Watercolor Quilt Class March 11- 14

Wow, we had a wonderful week working on our watercolor quilts. My students came up with their own original designs. We opened each class with a prayer and a demonstration of the next step. People graciously shared fabrics, ideas, compliments, prayer concerns and joys. Some students were hesitant to make something without a specific pattern to follow, but everyone made something beautiful. Teaching them was a joy. The week was energizing and exhausting. Here are some photos of my students and their work in progress.
Pastor Susan


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Sermon -- March 2, 2014 -- Transfiguration Sunday

Note -- Due to technical difficulties, the regular audio recording of my sermon was not able to be posted to the St. Andrew website.  So in its place here is my written text.

Our first reading is from the Hebrew Bible. You remember how the people of Israel left Egypt; they were slaves for Pharaoh, who didn’t want to let them go. God rescued them from being slaves, and helped them escape by making a path through the Reed, or Red, Sea. The people of Israel have been in the wilderness for three months now, looking for the land God promised Moses. Moses has been listening to Yahweh, and has told the people the laws God told him. Most of the laws concern how to treat other people and how to administer justice, with special attention to the poor, the slaves, widows and children. The people obey the laws some of the time.

And now, Moses is invited to receive more instructions from God. Listen for the word of God as it is found in the book of Exodus, chapter 24:12-18.

Yahweh said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay there and I’ll give you stone tablets and the law and the commandment, which I wrote for their instruction.” And Moses arose and his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. And he said to the elders, “Stay here for us, until we return to you. See, Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a case may go to them.” Then Moses went upon the mountain and a cloud enveloped the mountain, and the glory of Yahweh stayed upon Mount Sinai and the cloud covered it for six days and he called Moses on the seventh day from the middle of the cloud. And the appearance of Yahweh’s glory was like a devouring fire on top of the mountain, to the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moses went into the middle of the cloud and went up the mountain. Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

This ends our reading from the book of Exodus.

You know the rest of the story;  Moses brought down the commandments on stone tablets.  Moses, Miriam, and Aaron[1] took the people through the wilderness for forty years. And while they were nomads in the wilderness, God led them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. For forty years, the people lived in temporary dwellings: booths or tents. They didn’t build any permanent houses out of stone. For forty years, they didn’t have a permanent place to live.

The people are commanded to remember this time in history in the book of Leviticus. So, once a year, they build booths or tents to live in for a week. Jews today still build booths, called succoth, decorated with branches and newly-harvested fruits and vegetables. This harvest festival is also called the feast of booths or the feast of tabernacles, or in Hebrew, Sukkot. Leviticus says to do this “so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am Yahweh your God." [2]

Moses was on the mountain for six days, and God spoke to him on the seventh day. In the first creation story in Genesis, God made the world in six days. So any time something happens after six days, it clues us in that a new creation, or at least something important, is happening.

As we read from the gospel, you might hear similarities to the story from Exodus. Listen for the word of God as it is found in Matthew 17:1-9.

And six days later, Jesus took Peter and James and his brother John and led them onto a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured in front of them and his face shone like the sun, his clothes became bright white like the light. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Peter replied, saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good for us to be here. If you wish, I’ll make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still replying, suddenly a bright cloud covered them, and suddenly a voice from the cloud said, “This is my son, the beloved – in him I take delight. Hear him.” And the disciples, hearing this, fell to their faces and were greatly afraid.  Jesus came to them and touched them, saying, “Raise up and don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one, except Jesus himself, alone. And coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell the sight you have seen to anyone until the son of humanity is raised from death.”

This ends our reading of God’s word.

Did you hear the echoes from Exodus – the mountain, the cloud, waiting six days, the bright light, and Moses? This new creation, this new law, is the person of Jesus, who is the son of God. Jesus’ story is connected to the story of God’s people.

Peter wanted to celebrate by doing something from his tradition, and build booths. Jesus and Moses and Elijah could live in the booths, just like the people of Israel did once a year, to remember the Exodus.  Great idea, if this story is about tradition.

But it isn’t. Jesus’ story isn’t limited to what has happened before. God interrupts Peter, because the transfiguration is not about tradition, it is about Jesus.

What were the first words Jesus said to them, after they were given the heavenly instructions “Hear him?” Jesus came to them and touched them, saying, “Raise up and don’t be afraid.”

Bright light can be a little scary, because it makes it hard to see, and on a mountain you want to be able to see so you can move safely. And then the cloud comes, and that really makes it hard to see, because the water vapor reflects the light all around. And in a dry place like Israel, bright light in a cloud is unusual, so the disciples wouldn’t have had much experience with that. The heavenly voice and the appearance of Moses and Elijah were also unexpected and scary. But so was what Jesus had been saying to the disciples.

Just before they went on the mountain for the transfiguration, Jesus told the disciples that he would go to Jerusalem, be killed, and then raised on the third day. Peter didn’t like to hear that, and said to Jesus that this can’t happen. And Jesus tells Peter that Peter’s thinking about the wrong things, and reminds Peter that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Those words were meant to challenge Peter, not comfort him.

We can comfort ourselves by doing what we know how to do when something unfamiliar happens. Peter knew how to build booths or make tents. But traditional customs, old habits, and familiar activities weren’t what this transformation, this metamorphosis, this transfiguration was about; it was about the disciples seeing that Jesus was holy, that he was divine. The disciples heard the heavenly voice say, “Hear him.”

The divine voice, the cloud, the bright light showed the disciples that Jesus was divine, that his words about loving one another, about repentance and serving each other had divine approval.

We might wonder what just three of the four fisherman went up on the mountain with Jesus. What happened to Andrew? I’d always heard that these three were special, and Jesus’ inner circle, until I heard the Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Smith at Synod School in 2011. She asked those of us who are teachers, “Who do you want closest to you?” Right, the kids who need the most help—you encourage them to pay attention and sit close by. So Peter, James and John are the remedial group. The heavenly voice told the group, “Hear him.” Some of us wish our faith was deeper, stronger, better somehow. We feel we are in the remedial group when it comes to faith. So don’t worry. You are in good company.

And what does Jesus say that they’re supposed to listen to? “Don’t be afraid.” He had just told them that he was going to be killed in Jerusalem; being afraid would have been natural.[3]

When we are faced with something unfamiliar, it’s easy to be afraid.  They were afraid of Jesus’ dying, of their own futures. But death, like taxes is a certainty. We are all going to die. I hope I will die peacefully when I am very old. But I don’t know. Some people  do.

Dr. Jeffrey Piehler is a surgeon who is dying of cancer. He has started building his own coffin, much to his wife and friends’ chagrin. They thought it was a sign “he was giving up on life. In fact, the activity helped him live more fully and put things in proper perspective.” He said, “It’s pretty much impossible to feel anger at someone for driving too slowly in front of you in traffic when you’ve just come from sanding your own coffin.”[4]

Henri Nouwen wrote: “We all have dreams about the perfect life: a life without pain, sadness, conflict, or war. The spiritual challenge is to experience glimpses of this perfect life right in the middle of our many struggles. By embracing the reality of our mortal life, we can get in touch with the eternal life that has been sown there. Only by facing our mortality can we come in touch with the life that transcends death. Our imperfections open for us the vision of the perfect life that God in and through Jesus has promised us.”

Spiritual director Fleetwood Range (yes, that’s her real name) studied the medieval mystics of the 14th century and spent time in ancient churches in England (East Anglia). Recently, she found herself “studying a tiny decoration on an immensely high fan vault and thinking ‘No one but God, the artist, and a 21st century tourist with a super zoom lens will ever see that detail. The artist who carved it 600 years ago did it for the love of God alone. And perhaps for me in this unimagined time.’ And I thanked God for that ancient artist’s love of God. It is that love, still warm in the stone, which made the space holy.”[5]

Doing your best, and paying attention to detail isn’t encouraged in many places, but I think it matters. When I write my sermons, I’m careful to footnote where I found a quote, in case I want to use it again and wonder where I got it. Computers make it easy to footnote your writing; when we used typewriters, you had to count how many lines your footnote took up, and make sure to leave room at the bottom of the page for it; and woe to you if there was a quote at the bottom of the page but the footnote had to be continued on the next page.

It also keeps me honest. When I was learning how to preach, I went to a friend’s ordination and heard a bishop tell a story about his life, and I had read that same story in Readers’ Digest when I was in junior high. It made me distrust anything else he had to say. I want people to trust what I was saying. So I got in the habit of keeping track of where I got information.

Some years ago, I had an incredibly busy week—I spend a lot of time with very ill people and ministered to their families. I didn’t have enough time to write a sermon that really encountered the text, so I quoted a lot from Henri Nouwen, who as many of you know, has said a lot of eloquent words about prayer and suffering and faith. It turned out that one of our newest members had brought her fiancé to church, after telling him about my sermons. So I was a little embarrassed that so little of my sermon was original.

To my surprise, he complimented me on my sermon, and said, “I’ve read a lot of Henri Nouwen, and I know his writings well. You are the first pastor I’ve ever heard who quoted him and attributed it to him, instead of acting as if they were your own words.” After that, I realized it was ok not to be original.

With that, here’s another  quote from Henri Nouwen: “We will all die one day. That is one of the few things we can be sure of. But will we die well? That is less certain. Dying well means dying for others, making our lives fruitful for those we leave behind. The big question, therefore, is not ‘What can I still do in the years I have left to live?’ but ‘How can I prepare myself for my death so that my life can continue to bear fruit in the generations that will follow me?’

Jesus died well because through dying he sent his Spirit of Love to his friends, who with that Holy Spirit could live better lives. Can we also send the Spirit of Love to our friends when we leave them? Or are we too worried about what we can still do? Dying can become our greatest gift if we prepare ourselves to die well.”[6]

We’re often afraid of dying and death. It’s unfamiliar to us. One of the ways to make it less scary is to talk about it, and recognize that we can continue to care for those we love if we do a little planning. I heard a story a long time ago about a man who was dying of AIDS,, and he made a video to be shown at his funeral. In the video, he walked around his house, picking up objects he bequeathed to people. The items were labeled with the person’s name, and the words, “I’ve been dying to give this to you.”

And so we don’t need to be afraid of death. We can trust that God will take care of us. That bright cloud didn’t just cover Jesus; it covered Peter, James and John. The message is for them, too. They were included in the light. Jesus told them not to be afraid, not of his words nor of his way. I believe the gospel can transform people; I believe that following Jesus can make a difference to the world as well as to our souls.[7]

We know the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection, so we are free to follow Jesus and to hear him; we don’t need to be afraid either. Amen.

[1] Micah 6:4
[2] Leviticus 23:40-43
[3].Pfeil, Margaret R.  “Oscar Romero’s Theology of the Transfiguration,” Theological Studies, 72 (2011), p. 87+.  
[4] “Century Marks,” Christian Century,  March 5, 2014, p. 8., quoting from, The New York Times Feb. 1, 2014.
[5] “Letters,” ibid p. 6.
[6] Nouwen, Henri, from Bread for the Journey. 1997, a Daily Meditation for Feb,. 26, 2014 from the Henri Nouwen Society. So no page number!
[7] Brueggemann, et al. Texts for Preaching, Year A,  p. 171.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What the Holy Spirit is Doing in Our Midst at St. Andrew

Last week, I was supposed to give a report to presbytery on what the spirit has been doing at St. Andrew since I arrived. I’ve written a lot of paragraphs last week, and I just couldn’t write another paragraph. So here is “What the Holy Spirit is Doing in Our Midst at St. Andrew”  
“Why I’m grateful
to God for calling me here,
to the presbytery for accepting me as a member and
to St. Andrew Presbyterian Church for taking a leap of faith
and asking me to be their full-time pastor.”

Arriving November 6, 2013
we drive up thankful in just a light rain.
I move boxes inside, unpacked a couple,
then arrange for a sudden funeral,
for a PNC
extended family.
I locate cartons where everything is (and is not),
preach, pastor, visit, get lost quite a lot.
Chinook winds don’t melt the ice from an early storm
as I was assured they do in the church information form.
And by the way,

Between urgent tasks pastoral
and secretarial
there’s no time for staff to meet.
We have to trust in grace and guesswork for a week
until at last we find
some uninterrupted time
for showing what is where to me who’s just brand-new
so we can work with joy and ease in the office at St. Andrew.
Three people spackle, sand and prime the pastor’s study walls,
I listen to the history of these, our hallowed halls
which are movable and in pods,  once so cutting-edge,
now a little worn, all of them acknowledge.
We remove ceiling tiles and see the wiring for
the radio station here forty years earlier
that the remover himself had installed with care
as a young man when this was St. Andrew Square.
We roll and cut in, while we chat and think,
a lovely color of pale beige and not pink,
while fearing that one coat wouldn’t do,
and we’d  have to do two.  We do.
A wise man installs new outlets before the furniture is moved.
Our backs approved.
And by the way,

Wow, it looks great, we all realize!
Let’s do the fellowship ceiling ten times the size!
With four times the people, we organize and triage
furniture and broken stuff of uncertain lineage.
Then one coat of primer and two coats of paint--
our shoulders and hands call for restraint.
Let’s clear the library of old magazines
still older books and unused machines
and turn it into a room where more than just three
can meet in the name of Christ safely.
Worship Design Team, installation—So cool!
Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, baptismal renewal .
Rehearsals, concerts, and choir (praying twice)
despite the low temps and roads made of ice.
At last, ordinary time, not ordinary but restful--
so we can start planning on how we’ll disciple.
For months our labyrinth was covered by snow.
A thaw let me walk where I’d long longed to go.
And by the way,

I reach into the community by attending many things
League of Women Voters, Not In Our Town – TransBillings;
NIOT and the Black Heritage Foundation
celebrate King with a standing ovation
for a Civil Rights leader clear from Atlanta.
We sing and we pray and we shout Alleluia!
We celebrate how far we’ve come and how much we have to do.
I realize St. Andrew is doing that, too.
At a work day full of touching up and staining,
sanding and patching and drywall taping,
I demonstrated pastoral care
by bringing a ladder to a man on a chair.
Ceiling tile paint sprays straight overhead
so our tired old bodies had nothing to dread.
Despite controversy with Earth Care’s overture --
I moderated the best session meeting EVER !
Everyone left loved including this pastor
despite the long docket and the late hour,
because together we had dwelt deep in God’s word,
talking less than we listened, so the spirit was heard.
And we knew that our three-day-old sign by the way,
brought two unchurched people into Taizé.

Pastor Susan


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Earlier this month, my Faith and Values column appeared in the Billings Gazette. Because it’s Black History Month, and I had met the Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley at Billings’ MLK celebration, I wrote about the civil rights volunteers in the fifties and sixties. I am inspired by the tenacity of so many people who worked so hard amid such uncertainty. They did such ordinary things: running mimeograph machines, making phone calls, taking minutes, walking, lending their cars to strangers. It was a tedious, repetitive, and sometimes thankless. And yet, the volunteers persevered and saw the end of segregation and Jim Crow laws.

At a presbytery meeting, I met a pastor with buckshot in his behind from Freedom Summer, when he helped black sharecroppers organize so they could sell their produce. At a grocery store, I met a descendant of Alexander Clark, the doctor/businessman/US ambassador who sued the Iowa Board of Education in 1868 so his daughter Susan could go to the white school next door. Clark v Board of Directors was the case cited in Brown v. Board of Education, 1954, that integrated America’s public schools. Here in Montana, I met a white geologist who told me of his family’s commitment to higher education for African Americans in the south. As a child, he lived on a black college campus—all his friends were black.  He said he felt that experience was a gift from his father, who was a professor there. Seventy years later, he still struggles with the evils of racism.

I do too. I also struggle with homophobia. I have two gay brothers-in-law. Last year, I talked with a minister friend who directs a Christian ministry to help LGBTQI people. I was telling him how unhappy my previous church had been with me for not preaching against gays. I was angrily accused of being ‘political in the pulpit’ when I prayed for my brother-in-law and his new husband. My friend said, in surprise, “I guess homophobia affects people who aren’t gay, too.”

Prejudice affects more than just the targets of prejudice. We are all affected by evil. It can rub off on us, hurting us and infecting us. In Matthew 5:39, Jesus says, “Don’t mirror evil.”

It’s easy to let the prejudice around us influence the way we behave; it’s easy to respond to hate and anger with hate and anger. So I treasure that I have found a church where we can talk candidly about prejudice. Some people have shared how powerless they feel to speak up when their friends make racist remarks. Others have shared success stories when they’ve spoken up and it made someone think. It’s good to have a community that can support us as we work to follow Jesus’ teaching to love your neighbor as yourself, and try to obey God’s call to “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

I make watercolor quilts, and I gave Dr. Durley a piece of fabric to sign. He wrote, “Stay in the struggle-- Gerald and Muriel Durley.” I’m going to put that piece in a civil rights quilt. When I am frustrated by how little difference I make, by how slow our progress is, I will wrap that quilt around me and feel comforted by the knowledge that I am surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.   

Pastor Susan