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A Hand Reaches Out in The Storm

Matthew 14:22-33

walkingonwaterLet’s talk about miracles and metaphors and how the two can actually be friends or coexist–let’s talk about miracles. All religious traditions have miracles stories—things that happen and cannot be explained by science, biology, or empirical evidence. People turn into animals and vice versa, an entire sea parts in the middle and then closes up, someone blinds an entire army with a handful of dust, someone lifts a mountain and saves an entire village, someone rises in the air and divides his body into pieces and then rejoins them, someone walks on water. Those are just a few examples of miracles in folk religions, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity.

For the sake of our exploration, I choose to use the definition of miracles presented in Kenneth L. Woodward’s book, The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam.

Woodward defines miracles as:

…an unusual or extraordinary event that is in principle perceivable by others, that finds no reasonable explanation in ordinary human abilities or in other known forces that operate in the world of time and space, and that is the result of a special act of God or the gods or of human beings transformed by efforts of their own through asceticism and meditation.

Woodward also argues that miracles are best understood through stories and should not be seen within the framework of the laws of nature or “proving” something.

Each specific religious tradition defines what a miracle is according to the context of the religion. As Woodward states, when it comes to miracles, we shouldn’t ask: did it really happen? but instead what does it mean?

So let’s do that.

Let’s look at this specific so-called miracle of Jesus, walking on water, not asking whether it happened or not, but what it means.

Jesus’ followers were in a boat in the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had gone up to a mountain to be by himself. When evening came, a storm started to rage the waters and the boat was tossed about violently. Morning came, and Jesus came walking towards the boat, seemingly on top of the water. The people in the boat were terrified and thought he might be a ghost. But Jesus reassured them and told them to not be afraid. Peter then got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus, on the water. But he noticed that a strong wind was blowing and he got scared again and started to sink. He cried out for help. Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter.

So what does this mean?

In many ancient cultures and religions, including Christianity, it was normal to compare the difficult times of life with a stormy sea or some sort of choppy waters. So the people on the boat are us. They are life, and then the stormy sea represents the trials and tribulations of our lives. Jesus of Nazareth, walking on this stormy sea, represents the ability to rise above the difficulties of life, internally transcending the external. Jesus offered this ability to the people in the boat. Peter took Jesus up on his offer and was initially able to rise above the stormy sea. Eventually though, the wind distracted him and he was afraid. Fear then, was the thing that sunk Peter.

So by asking: what does this miracle story mean, I hope that you can glean some meaning for yourself. What stands out to me is that the story does not paint this life as an easy, pleasant experience. There is acknowledgement of the difficulty and suffering in life. We all face stormy seas; we all have moments when we feel that we are stranded in a boat in the middle of stormy waters, with not land in sight. This is human. This is real.

What happened in Charlottesville, Virginia recently was real. White supremacists caused violence and spread hatred. One of those white supremacists drove a car into people–into people. Heather Heyer was killed. Two state police troopers were killed in a helicopter crash. Others were injured. “Unite the Right” organized the hateful rally. I cannot imagine what Heather’s and the two officer’s family and friends feel. I cannot imagine what African-Americans feel when these things keep happening. This is not new. This is consistently awful. Makes me think that those affected by racism and white supremacist violence and hate crimes feel like they are in a boat in the middle of a raging sea, but their boat has capsized and there is no end in sight. Where is the shore? When will this end?

resistHateCharlottesvilleThe rallies, gatherings, and protests since Charlottesville tell a different story, don’t they? People are together, standing up against hate, against prejudice of any kind. You see, it’s one thing to retweet things and post on Facebook, but it’s another thing to walk side by side with people and to stand in solidarity with those who feel targeted and marginalized. This is rising above.

Whatever you faith background [or lack thereof] I think it’s clear that Jesus stands with those who are oppressed, targeted, and on the margins. And Jesus points all of us to the possibility of being at peace even when life is full of storms. Being at peace does not mean ignoring the problems or suffering of life [and certainly not ignoring white supremacism or hatred of any kind], but rather, not letting those stormy seas take over our lives or keep us from being our whole selves.

In short, if we realize that it is human to go through these storms and we couple that with the thought that we are capable of rising above, of walking on water, then the storms aren’t the end of our stories.

There is shore somewhere.

And lastly, it is important to note that Jesus, in all of the miracle stories of the Gospels, is not supposed to be presented as a supernatural force performing magic tricks, but rather, a person who broke down societal norms and worked towards bringing more balance to the injustices of the world. He sought to change the narratives of those who were marginalized, teaching them and leading by example, that they too could rise above stormy waters and find wholeness.

Whom am I to say any of this? I’m no one. I’m someone with way too much privilege. But this will not keep me from helping others rise above the storms, extending a hand when needed, hoisting a sign in protest, speaking out against racism and prejudice, and stepping back when other voices need to be heard. This will not keep me from believing that being widening my circle of friends and colleagues to include more and more people who don’t think or look like me. I keep thinking, praying, meditating, hoping–that there is shore somewhere. But we will have to face these storms together.

P.S. Dear friends, family, colleagues, whomever who is experiencing racism, prejudice, discrimination, targeting–it’s evil and terrible. It’s inhuman. It’s the opposite of what the world is supposed to be. We won’t be complicit. We won’t be silent. We love you. You are us and we are you.

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Transgender Remembrance: Freeing Ourselves, Freeing Others

John 11:38-44

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The Binding of Gender
It is not a stretch to claim that religious people, more specifically Western Christians, have had quite a lot of trouble with the idea of gender. We could spend hours discussing the patriarchal history and embedded male dominance of the Christian Church from its inception to the current day. So it only follows that the church has a poor reputation as to how it treats people who identify as transgender or gender fluid. For example, the recent bathroom access controversy has been spurred on by so-called Christian groups. They claim that transgender use of public bathrooms poses a “danger” to others. Of course, this crazy and unfounded fear is based on their idea that God does “make” mistakes, and since they believe that male or female is the only possible gender identification or expression, God must then work only in binaries. Anything outside of that rigid definition cannot be from God. Of course, that is neither Biblical nor consistent with any of Jesus’ teachings. It does continue to confuse and frustrate me how so many Western Christians struggle to accept that God is bigger than us, and therefore, gender is bigger than our limited perspectives.

Of course, a lot of it goes back to the scriptures and how people interpret them. If someone interprets them literally, then they assume that this is the very Word of God, unchanged. But they never do take the Bible literally. Instead, they impose their own agendas and interpretations to fit their own social, political, and moral perspectives. We all do, really. Just for fun, let me say this: if those who claim to take the Bible literally really did, well, surprise!

Jesus would in fact be transgender.

I’ll get to that later, but first we have to recognize, in all seriousness, the great harm that the Christian church has done to transgender people. It goes beyond religious marginalization. The church has bullied trans folk, physically and mentally harmed them, and the church has even killed them. We must admit to this.

According to the Human Rights Campaign and GLADD, in 2015, there were 21 reported murders of transgender people. Already in 2016, there have been 26 reported murders. This is just in the United States alone. This does not take into account those who are bullied and pushed to the brink of suicide, and those who go through with it. Friends, in a time in which hateful rhetoric has amped up against certain people, this should wake us up. We are not talking about gang violence or narco trafficking. We are talking about people being targeted and killed because of their gender identity or expression. The church, all Christians, we are responsible. We cannot allow this to happen. We must take a stand. How, you may ask.

First, maybe some of us need to learn. I know that I admit to knowing very little. I do research, read all the transgender and LGBTQ literature I can get my hands on, I ask questions of my transgender friends, family, and colleagues. I still have a lot to learn. We all do. We must listen. We must learn. To start, here are some terms to be acquainted with:

Terminology

Gender Identity:  a person’s innate, deeply felt sense of being male or female (sometimes even both or neither)

Gender Expression: external, and based on individual and societal conceptions and expectations

Transgender: gender identity does not match their assigned birth sex

Gender Fluid: a more flexible range of expression, with interests and behaviors that may even change from day to day.

Gender Queer: a fluidity of gender expression that is not limiting

By no means an exhaustive or all-encompassing discussion. Please comment and add your thoughts and added insights and knowledge.

Lazarus Bound, We Are All Bound
mummy
This brings us to the Lazarus story. Lazarus, like many transgender friends of ours in this world, was bound. He was bound with mummy-like burial cloths in a cave, a tomb. His friends and family thought he was dead. Jesus came along and told his sister Mary not to be so depressed about it, that Lazarus would live. Mary, in her binary thinking, agreed, but she was thinking about heaven. But Jesus was talking about today. No one understood, but it didn’t matter to Jesus. He went to the cave, a metaphor in the Gospel tradition for transformation or metamorphosis—the caterpillar’s cocoon. Roll away that stone. Lazarus, COME OUT OF THE CAVE! He did come out of the cave, but he was still bound. He was not yet alive, that his, until Jesus spoke the all-important words: Unbind him; let him go. Unbind Lazarus, let him go. Let Lazarus be Lazarus, whoever that may be. Stop limiting his life to your perspectives, or religious beliefs, or social conditioning. Let Lazarus go. Unbind.

The Unbinding, Freeing Jesus
The people were sure they knew who Lazarus was [he was dead to them], but Jesus reminded them of how limited their thinking was—not just about God, but about people, too. Jesus of Nazareth could indeed heal Lazarus, but in order for Lazarus to be truly free, the people had to unbind him.

Honestly, I cannot imagine what transgender people have gone through and go through. I can only listen to their stories and then stand with them. I have never experienced what many of them have—to be criticized, marginalized, or even targeted—not because they committed a crime, or fought in a war against you, or did or said something bad to you. Just because they are. That is brutal. Absolutely devastating. And as Jesus taught, we cannot follow God if we do not stand with those who are truly marginalized. I’m not talking about fake marginalization, I’m talking about people who are clearly targeted and attacked physically, mentally, and spiritually—who are told that their bodies and minds don’t matter. This is beyond wrong. This is evil.

transgender-1030x1030
I told you I’d come back to this business about a transgender Jesus and the Biblical interpretations and so here we go. Suzanne DeWitt Hall, in her article Jesus the First Transgender Man in the Huffington Post, makes an interesting point. For all those who say that transgender people are outside of God’s natural order, let’s apply their so-called literal translations of the Bible. The teachings of the ancient church through today, in general, are that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood person. He was born of Miriam [Mary in Greek], so therefore, he was carrying her DNA. Also, the Bible [and Christian church] has taught that Jesus was the new Adam, born of the new Eve. Stay with me here. The Hebrew book of Genesis states that Eve came from Adam’s rib, obviously a male rib, right? And then Eve became female. So she was male, and then was female? Transgender Eve. Oh, and fast forward to Jesus. He was born of Miriam [Mary], but not of Joseph, if you believe in the whole incarnate birth thing. So…Mary was the new Eve, passing on her gender fluid identity to Jesus.

Add to that the creation stories in Genesis which state that God created humans in God’s likeness, male and female. So what is God? Man? Woman? Both? Neither? Uh-huh, you feeling me now?

It’s a joke when Christians try to say that transgender people or those who are gender fluid, are not living as God intends. They make their faulty arguments all the while ignoring the Bible itself. Most people will be quick to tell you that God is not a man, but if so, then why do they continue to insist on calling God “he” and not “she” or neither gender? Look, it’s time for the church, it’s time for Christians to grow up and to actually read the Bible. And it’s time for Christians to embrace people of all gender identifications and expressions as they are.

Take a quick glance at the dictionary definition for the prefix “trans.” It means across, beyond, through, changing thoroughly. Hello, Jesus. Christ crosses all borders and limitations; Christ is beyond the church, beyond religion; Christ is through all and in all; Christ changes people thoroughly and helps them feel alive again. So yes, Jesus was/is trans. Jesus showed us what it can be like to just love and accept people as they are. That kind of relationship is healing. Friends, we must see all of our trans neighbors, friends, family members, and colleagues as we see ourselves. They are beautiful, they are good creations, they are deserving of dignity, respect, and love. No more binding. No more hating. Time for all to be free.
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Participating in Miracles?

Matthew 14:13-21

 

MIRACLE.

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:

1: an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs

2: an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment

Not sure what you consider to be a miracle. Does it have to be something religious—something related to a god or gods? Does it have to be supernatural?

Or are miracles everyday occurrences that we cannot explain?

 

What’s a miracle to you?

Check out this Ted Talk given by Louie Schwartzberg.
Hidden Miracles of the Natural World.

Now allow me to admit something to you.

I love to see nature’s miracles.

But I’m not a big fan of the popular miracle stories we have in our religious traditions. Don’t get me wrong—I love mythology and magic and science fiction. I thoroughly enjoy the magical stories in the various religious books from around the world.
But we’ve come to a point in humanity’s existence when some of those miracle stories [particularly religious ones] have led us to apathy, lack of empathy, and even great misunderstandings that lead to violence.

I don’t think this is a stretch at all.

Consider what is happening in Gaza right now.

Both sides of this violent conflict claim to have some higher authority that gives them the right to claim a certain land. Now, whether or not most of the normal, everyday people of Israel and Palestine believe that—I don’t know. But that’s the view we often hear about and see.

Children, youth, and adults all die because someone believes in a supernatural right to a particular land.
It’s so tense right now that people are afraid to even talk about this issue.
No matter what someone says, it’s likely to offend someone.

So I probably just did.

And then there are other issues like the fact that thousands of children and youth from Central America are coming to the U.S. via la bestia, a train that travels through Mexico to the U.S. border. They are risking their lives because they believe that they will be reunited with their families in the U.S. if they can just get across that imaginary border we made up years ago.

They expect that they will be greeted with hospitality, food and water, a place to stay. They think that once they are in the U.S. their lives will be better.

There are also countless examples of prejudice, discrimination, racism–the pushing down of people just because of their skin color, or cultural background, the religion they practice [or don’t] or the language they speak.
Ferguson, Missouri. Black men [unarmed] and killed by police officers in the last few weeks:
Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or John Crawford.

Of course, These issues are only a few of many around the world.

So back to the issue of miracles.

I argue that our stringent belief in religious, supernatural miracles [especially those within books] have led us to apathy, a lack of empathy, and even violence.

We rely on some supernatural force to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict.
We wait for some god-miracle to deal with those Central American kids.
We stay silent about and don’t organize against racism or prejudice of any kind in our communities.

We pray and pray and pray, and light more candles.

And then what?

My question for you to consider today is simple:

Do we ourselves participate in miracles?

In other words, for one moment, try to put past ideas and conditioning aside. Think about miracles differently. Consider the possibility that miracles do in fact happen, but they don’t happen while we are passive.

Consider that miracles happen when we are agents of change.

Do we participate in miracles?

And with this in mind, let’s look at a really famous miracle story in the Christian sacred text of Matthew’s Gospel. The miracle story of the loaves and fishes is also told in the other three canonical Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John.

On the surface, this seems like the best Jesus hocus pocus magic show ever.

You go, Jesus Potter Harry Christ!

jesuspotterharrychrist.jpeg

People hungry. 5000+ people, actually.
Not enough food.

Did I mention hungry people, and a lot of them?
Enter Jesus, who waves his magic wand and…Abracadabra!
Bread and fish for everybody!
It’s a miracle!

The story begins with “when Jesus heard this.” What Jesus had heard was that John the Baptist, his cousin, had been killed by Herod Antipas, the ruler of a region called Galilee. Even though Jesus was obviously distraught over what had happened and wanted some alone time—when he saw the crowds of people he felt compassion for them and offered healing to those who needed it. But then, that evening, the disciples arrived. Now I don’t recall the people ever saying anything about being hungry. But the disciples were anticipating having to feed these people. They had only five loaves of bread and two fish—probably enough to feed themselves and Jesus. But it was their ration and certainly not something they would share with the others.

So the disciples wanted to send the people away.
Not enough to go around.

But Jesus said to them: “YOU give them something to eat.”

Jesus took the five loaves and the two fish from the disciples.
After a blessing, Jesus broke the bread. Then, the disciples gave the bread to the crowds.

Everyone was satisfied. There were even leftovers.

A LOT more than 5,000 people, because someone forgot to count the women and children.
It was a miracle!
Or something like that.

Look, I’m not here to be a Debbie Downer.

debbieDownerBut the author of Matthew’s Gospel story has Jesus only bless and break the bread. Then, he distributes it to the disciples.

Um, yeah. This is classic “Communion/Eucharist/Lord’s Supper.

#JesusBodyandBloodCeremony

Matthew’s agenda, however, is to include a great number of people in the Lord’s Supper– regardless of social status, wealth, being clean or unclean—they all ate together.
For one beautiful moment in a story, people of all shapes and sizes; beliefs and cultures; languages and traditions; social levels and genders and ages—were together.

They were humanity.

 And this was a miracle.

I asked you at the beginning to consider the possibility that miracles do indeed happen, but that they don’t happen when we are passive. I asked you to consider that miracles happen when we choose to be agents of change.

I am asking you to be willing to participate in miracles.

And like you saw in the beautiful nature videos, you will need to accept the fact that many [if not most] of the real miracles in the world and all around us are hidden miracles.
They are not featured on television news programs, tweeted to a million people, or shared on Facebook.
They are hidden to our conditioned and distracted eyes.

Hidden miracles—but real. VERY real.

I challenge you to participate in the miracles here on the ground where the people, animals, plants, and all living things are.
Don’t limit miracles to divine intervention.
Don’t wait for someone or something else to make positive changes happen.

Miracles have always been and will always be extremely outstanding and unusual events, things, and accomplishments in this world.

And real miracles are needed in Gaza; in Palestine; in Israel. In Western countries like the United States, that both fund and support Israel’s military actions; in Arab countries that both fund and support Hamas’ military actions.

The real miracle would be Palestinians and Israelis seeing each other as humans and not enemies. The real miracle would be if countries like the U.S. would stop fanning the flames of hateful rhetoric and start funding peacemaking instead of bombs.

Consider this recent article in the Chicago Tribune, written by Jill Jacobs:

This is what we need to hear instead: pro-Palestinian voices that empathize with the Israelis racing for shelter, that denounce terrorism and rocket attacks, and that refuse to tolerate any anti-Semitic tropes masquerading as criticism of Israeli policy. In one powerful and much-circulated op-ed, for instance, a Palestinian-American student calls for pro-Palestinian protesters to utterly reject anti-Semitism.

And we need to hear pro-Israel voices expressing authentic grief at the deaths of Palestinian children, calling for protection for civilian populations, acknowledging the damage inflicted by 47 years of occupation, and denouncing any language that dehumanizes Palestinians or Muslims.[1]

Likewise, as it pertains to the 50,000 + children and youth from Central America who are here in this country, will we participate in miracles?

A United Church of Christ ministry, Bethany Children’s Home, near Reading, PA, was asked by the federal government to be a temporary site for children who have been victims of abuse and human trafficking.

bethany.jpegThe program is called Helping Hands. It allows staff at Bethany to pick up children at one of the surrounding airports, give them food, clothing and a medical exam and reunite them with family in the United States while they await an immigration proceeding. Kevin Snyder, Bethany’s CEO, said this:

“They are very caring kids. They are very needy children. They are very appreciative.”

bethany2.jpegIn spite of recent protests against the Helping Hands program, Bethany’s staff and volunteer core remain committed to helping kids as long as there is a need. Says Snyder:

“These are children. They need help and we just cannot turn our backs on them.”[2]

The real miracle is in seeing these children and youth as human beings who deserve hospitality and fulfillment of their basic needs. The real miracle would be to stop seeing them as “undocumented” immigrants, criminals, or problems.

And as for all the senseless shootings in U.S. cities, and the prejudice that is alive and well, even though some people to cover it up–as people, as human beings, let’s stop being silent about it.

Stop justifying it. Stop criminalizing young men just because of their skin color or cultural or religious background.

Seriously, just stop.

And when you see or hear this kind of prejudice, don’t stand by and watch it happen. Don’t pray for a miracle.

Make a miracle.

Be friends with people who are different than you. Stand up for anyone who is pushed down.

So friends, I ask this same question—of myself and of you:

Will we participate in real miracles?

 

[1] “Move past hideous stereotypes of Israelis, Palestinians”, Jill Jacobs, Chicago Tribune, August 1st, 2014.

[2] http://www.wfmz.com/news/news-regional-berks/local-program-reuniting-kids-crossing-border-illegally-with-families-in-united-states/26987366

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