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God’s Vision, Our Healing
A sermon preached by Jess Cook
Rutgers Presbyterian Church, Common Ground, and Not So Churchy
Isaiah 55:6-13 and Mark 8:22-26

This year has been, I would say, kind of a big one for me. In May I turned 40 which, I didn’t realize beforehand, but it turns out is a really great birthday – after a decade that made little sense, despite the expectation that I’d have my shit together, I found 40 to be a welcome change in that I’ve begun to realize none of us really ever has our shit together – the task is more to be ok with that on some level which oddly, does actually impact my shit being together.

So, yes, I turned 40. I was also ordained as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA), which was pretty amazing. This summer marked a decade since I began the process of ordination – and, it marks a decade since I met Mieke Vandersall.

As any of us who’ve known Mieke for any amount of time can attest, she can be kind of hard to say no to. And that summer of 2009, shortly after meeting Mieke, I found myself on the planning team for what has been affectionately called Gay Summer Camp – a weekend-long retreat for LGBTQIA+ candidates for ordination in the PC(USA). I was at the very beginning of my call process at the time, still largely disbelieving it was even possible for me to be ordained, which was a really safe belief, given the denomination’s stance at the time on ordination for openly LGBTQIA+ people. because it was. Yet, Mieke asked me to be part of the planning team and attend the retreat, and I said yes. It was one of those moments my mentor Dr. Katie Cannon used to refer to as a time you feel the hand of the spirit on your back, a gentle nudge in the direction toward living into the fullness of who God has created you to be. My yes wasn’t a huge thing, more of a small nod to the invitation, but it was enough.

It’s not that my resistance to ordination was about a lack of desire, or even a lack of a sense of call to ministry. I just didn’t know it was possible to live into the fullness of both my identity and my sense of call. As someone who grew up in a small town in Northeast Texas, I’d never before seen an openly LGBTQIA+ person leading worship. To this day, I still have yet to hear a sermon preached by an openly trans person other than myself. That summer at Gay Summer Camp, and for many summers afterwards, showed me a new vision of what was possible. The community I met through those retreats was like a balm to my isolation. Through our laughter and tears, worship and shared meals, we bore witness to the ways the Holy Spirit breaks the mold of even our wildest imaginations. The community, bound together through a shared struggle and a shared faith, offered not only an expanded vision of what was possible, but also the tools we each brought that could make that possibility a reality.

The retreat in 2009 was spent in large part lamenting the recently failed ratification of changes to the book of order that would’ve made it possible for openly LGBTQIA+ people to be ordained. We worshipped together, wept together, voiced our frustration and our heartache. We didn’t know that in less than 2 years the window of possibility for living into our calls to ordained ministry would open up. What we knew was that the struggle for a change to ordination standards had already gone on for most of our lifetimes, and that the struggle to be seen as something other than an abomination or an aberration seemed never-ending. What we knew was the heartache, the seeming impossibility of it all. Yet, we came together. We prayed. We sang. We lamented. We broke bread. More than anything, we saw and affirmed one another in the fullness of who we were created to be. For a few days we exhaled. And then we got back to work.

Reading today’s scripture passages, I kept coming back to the memories of that first retreat. The audiences in both Isaiah and Mark know all too well the struggle that comes in the face of impossible odds. Isaiah’s audience had been in exile long enough to know the kind of pain hope can bring. And as hopeful visions go, Isaiah’s is a doozy. Not just will the people be restored, but all of nature – the mountains will burst into song and the trees of the field will clap their hands. God’s redemption of the people of Israel isn’t just for them, but for all of creation. In the depths of their despair, Isaiah offers a vision of hope beyond their imagination, a poetic glimpse into God’s plan to restore all of creation, which will be so full that even the trees will rejoice. Nature’s personified response is a sign that God’s vision is being fulfilled.

Mark’s audience, also living for too long in the midst of conflict and uncertainty, were burdened with the weight of an economy built upon their backs, many living on the land they’d once called their own, growing food only to sell it to the wealthy for little more than a pittance. Already on the margins of society, they were pushed even further out by the social and religious elite who saw them impure or unclean, irrevocably broken. The very institutions intended to protect them instead exposed them to greater danger. They felt powerless. Hopeless.

Throughout the Gospel, the author of Mark draws heavily from Isaiah’s prophetic images of God’s promises, particularly as they apply to Jesus. In a context when scripture was more often heard than read, Mark’s audience listened to the stories of Jesus juxtaposed with Isaiah’s promise of the person who will make things right. As the only other passage where trees are personified in quite this way, Mark’s audience surely would’ve known the reference when the man in Mark 8 sees people who look like trees walking. I can almost see them pausing, confused, to correct the storyteller – umm, you just said the trees are walking? Don’t you mean they are clapping their hands?

The reference to Isaiah’s trees come at a turning point in Mark. Immediately after this healing Peter finally understands that Jesus is the Messiah. Like Isaiah, the author of Mark uses imagery of trees personified as a sign of God’s movement in the world. The restoration they have longed for, the healing they need, is on its way.

I confess that the cynic in me can almost hear the bitter laughter, the muted murmurings of Isaiah’s audience, beyond their last fuse, burned out and content to assimilate with their Babylonian captors who at least offered a modicum of safety and comfort, some form of normalcy. Mark’s audience had to be similarly frustrated – even with the belief that Jesus was the one promised to bring about the fullness of God’s kindom, they were tired of suffering.

If I’m honest, though, perhaps it’s not the laughter of Isaiah and Mark’s audiences that rang so loudly in my ears, but my own. I feel I’m surely not alone in feeling that there are times when even the deepest poetry of scripture seems almost naive against our current circumstances. I mean, really – how do we juxtapose words about the rain and snow coming down from heaven against the destruction caused by Hurricane Dorian? How do we speak of the trees of the field clapping their hands while the Brazilian rainforest burns at unprecedented rates? How do we not see promised peace as a joke when children are being kept in cages, Black lives still don’t matter, when the rhetoric of violence and dehumanization continues to increase? When trans women of color continue to be brutalized – just this week we learned of the murders of Bailey Reeves and Bee Love, may they rest in power.

How do I, as a person called and charged to offer a message of hope, do so without falling into some naive projections about God not giving us more than we can handle or offering empty platitudes which may bring temporary comfort, but have no real substance or capacity to change anything?

Odd as it may sound, I believe a conversation about sin is one of the first steps in this process.

While I realize I am somewhat unique in my, shall we say, robust understanding of sin, I come by this thoughtfulness honestly. Because, while I was raised in the Presbyterian Church, much of my time growing up was spent with the folks from First Baptist Church. While I knew I was loved and cared for in my home church, First Presbyterian just didn’t have the size or resources to offer the kinds of summer youth trip options offered by First Baptist – trips where about 200 or so high school students were taken to Florida for a week at the beach. And it was on one of these trips, in the summer before my freshman year of high school, when I was saved for the first time. I can still hear the surprise in my mother’s voice when I called to share the news that I had asked Jesus to be my lord and savior. “Umm,” my mother said, “we don’t really say it like that in the Presbyterian church.” Yet, I’d never before had someone ask me questions about the state of my eternal soul, or tell me that saying a prayer could ensure that I would avoid hell. So when the invitation came for us to follow Jesus, I stepped up.

Though I wouldn’t have admitted it, my having been “saved” gave me the feeling of being somewhat superior than other people, spiritually speaking. I saw myself as more evolved, or more devoted to my faith and to God than the people from my Presbyterian church. Though, I was also more afraid – of both myself and of God. I was exhausted going through the checklist every night in my prayers, asking forgiveness for even the most minor infractions, terrified that if I missed one sin, if I failed to confess every last misdeed, I’d be doomed forever.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this kind of thinking left me feeling siloed, shut off in my own exercise of futility as I scribbled my sins down on an ever-lengthening scorecard of my failures. Sin became a thing that could be wiped out with one prayer – an easy fix for an increasingly complex life. This method worked until it didn’t – I would forget to confess every sin, or couldn’t keep track, or sometimes didn’t even know if something was a sin, so I started blanket confessing, apologizing, asking for salvation. As someone who was socialized as white and female in the south, the combination of a blanket apology and simple solution was quite familiar, even by that time. I knew well how to make myself small, and already had begun to hone the fine art of tuning out the less pleasant aspects of the world around me.

One of the things I connect with most in the Presbyterian tradition is the way we understand sin not only as an individual act, but as a systemic problem. We confess our sins together because sin isn’t something that begins and ends with each of us, but is pervasive among and within all of us. So, conversations about sin aren’t just about the murders of trans women, but the intersecting relationship between white supremacy and heterosexism that led to their deaths. Discussions about immigrant families traveling thousands of miles to our border seeking asylum only to be caged upon arrival aren’t relegated to the individuals who order and carry out such atrocities, but about the false rhetoric that reduces a child of God to an issue to be smeared out of existence.

While we each commit individual acts that separate us from God and one another, sin is communal, my friends; and while it would be simpler in many ways to maintain our own individual checklists of misdeeds, the Gospel calls us to see not only the reason for those misdeeds, but also the ways in which they impact others. Creating a list of things I’ve decided are racist, or sexist, or ableist, or hurt the environment, and then avoiding that list may do something on a small scale, but at the end of the day, by making those practices the focus, rather than the people who are most impacted by systemic prejudice, I am missing the point. Even more, I risk reducing people to certain parts of their identity, rather than seeing them as children of God.

While we have all likely had moments lately when the desire to silo ourselves among like-minded individuals has been strong, the Gospel challenges us to remember the ways in which we are all connected. We are called to work for a world where all of God’s children know they are seen and loved and able to live into a life of abundance. If we take seriously the idea that we all bear the divine, then every person we meet becomes an opportunity to deepen our understanding of God. Being honest about our sinfulness means calling to task governments or individuals that have aligned the language of religion and patriotism in a way that distorts them both, and it challenges us to see the ways in which we have all been complicit in maintaining and supporting systems that dehumanize and criminalize some while turning a blind eye to injustice all around.

As church-going people, it challenges us, especially, to see the ways in which our traditions have been misused to justify atrocity after atrocity, it means naming the things we’d most often like to leave unnamed, recognizing that sometimes keeping the peace may avoid conflict in the present, but it tears us apart in the long run, festering like an open wound. Looking around today, we are in the midst of a time when these wounds have gone ignored for too long; and, no matter which side of the political or ideological divide you stand on, the stench is noxious. And thank God for that stink. Because no wound can be healed if it remains unacknowledged.

And this is where God’s promises in Isaiah start to make some sense, because only when we acknowledge both the things that are broken and our complicity in the breaking will we begin to truly see God’s healing. Both Isaiah and Mark challenge a status quo built on principles of scarcity and the ways distorted religious language is employed to maintain that status quo in service of the empire. In the face of this scarcity, both Mark and Isaiah call the people to live abundantly – not in terms of material possessions, but as the collective people of God.

And this is what I most love the Presbyterian understanding of sin, because when we talk about sin, we have to talk about it within the context of grace. When we baptize infants in the Presbyterian Church, we do so in part to show that God’s grace is offered to us even when we do not have the capacity to ask for it. This makes conversations about sin much easier because they are couched in an understanding of how deeply we are loved. Understanding grace in this way roots a conversation about natural disasters in the experiences of the people impacted by those events and what can be done to not only minimize such disasters, but also to create change that protects people’s homes and lives so they are better prepared when future disasters happen. It shifts a conversation about my individual acts of racism to an understanding of racism and white supremacy as a system that privileges my whiteness at the expense of someone else’s body or life.

About two months ago, I was ordained as a Minister of The Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA). The Monday after my ordination I was contacted by Franklin, a member of the Presbytery staff, informing me that the paperwork I’d submitted during my decade in the process of ordination no longer needed to be kept on file by the Presbytery, and I was kindly invited to pick it up. When I stopped by to get everything I got into a conversation with Franklin and we began discussing things that keep us grounded and steady. I mentioned gardening and Franklin talked about the ways meditation and breath keep him steady. Just taking a breath, he told me, could keep him steady and clear, even in the face of tension. When I asked more about what he meant, he stood up right in front of me and put out his arm, like so.

“Push me:” he said.

So, I gently pushed.

“See how when I forget to breathe, and I hold myself up in my shoulders?” he said. “When I do that, and you push me, [cue pushing], it’s easy for me to topple.”

“Check out what happens when I breathe and am grounded.”

Trying this again, I pushed and, rather than spinning back or toppling, he gently swayed and kept his posture.

“It’s as simple as breathing,” he said. Breathing keeps us grounded and steady, and keeps us from the temptation to continue the ongoing power struggle we have with ourselves. It’s as simple as breathing. Breathing – breath – the Spirit moving within us and connecting us to one another. As the body of Christ in the world, we are called to carry that breath out, to bring the same kind of healing to those around us – not only the ones we love, but the ones we don’t love. This kind of work is how our love and worship takes form when we go outside these doors, and as it is intended to make us and help us create a space together where a God dwells not only within us but among us. Our worship means nothing if it isn’t lived out in our lives. And if our worship is preventing us from being the Body of Christ in the world, it’s likely time to revisit what we are doing in our worship.

In a few minutes we will break bread and share communion together. And serving communion continues to be one of my favorite things about being part of the church.

A few months ago, while serving communion at my home church, Ginter Park Presbyterian in Richmond, I was happily breaking off bread and placing it in people’s hands when one woman took her piece, broke it in half, and handed it right back to me. “You gave me too much.” She said. “Here, take some back.” Unsure of what to do, I continued serving. At the end of worship, while shaking hands with folks at the back of the sanctuary, another congregant approached me – this one a 5 1/2 year old named Gabe. Holding a quarter of the remaining communion loaf up to me he asked, “would you like to remember Jesus?” Yes, Gabe. Yes, I do.

Now, I don’t want to over-simplify things and say that if we breathe and break bread together, we can actually live into who we were created to be as God’s people, but I truly do believe that if we breathe and break bread together, we can begin to understand more about who we are – not only individually, but together. And that – that carries out into the world. As the living, breathing body of Christ in the world, we are called to his ministry of reconciliation and we are called to believe that what we do in here matters when we step outside. And if our walls are the thing keeping us from seeing ourselves as the body of Christ in the world, it may be time to ask ourselves what those walls are really doing. We are all  children of God – woven together in the Spirit, abundant and embodied in every single person we meet. And we are invited to eat and to share the meal together, not just here with one another, but everywhere and with everyone we meet. The meal is abundant and life giving and will provide enough for all of us. It likely won’t end natural disasters, but it will wake us up enough to see the children of God suffering in the wake of such disasters. And that’s a step we are all not only invited, but called to make. And when that invitation comes, may we all say yes.

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