Saturday, August 16, 2008

Ministry: Homeless and Ordained

Professor Margaret Farley, 1976
Sermon at the Ordination of Marie M. Fortune

We come together tonight for an ordination to ministry. This is, I think, no ordinary night and no ordinary ordination. If we wish to know its meaning, we must reflect on what Marie Fortune has asked of the Christian community, and what we by being here now affirm in response to her. And we must reflect on what we along with many others have asked of her over long months and years and again tonight, and her response to our call. There is for us, in all of this, an extraordinary opportunity to learn something not only about Marie’s ordination, but in it and through it about the ministry of women today.
There is, after all, an extraordinary word being spoken here tonight. The psalmist asks, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” and speaks of sitting and weeping so far away from home. The poets talk of “not ceasing from an exploration which will only end when we arrive where we started,” and of alienation in a “space which cannot hear,” as if one were a “word which is in a foreign tongue.” And the gospel tells of women who were given a word to speak, but a word that sounded to those who heard it as nonsense. The theme of these readings is surely not an ordinary theme for ordination. It speaks of a strange word, a strange and puzzling song: of the experience of not being at home, of not being understood or recognized or even heard, of being an exile in a strange land, of wandering – not lost, but not yet found.

We might have expected to ponder the meaning of a woman’s ministry by thinking of her as making this world a home for persons, a place where they can be at home, where they can grow into the fullness of freedom and faith and life. Women, after all, have long been understood to have a special role in making persons at home, in making a home; and surely that role is needed in the ministry of the Christian churches.

In fact, however, a large part of the experience of contemporary women in ministry is now characterized by a sense of homelessness, of alienation from so much in the culture and so much in the church and so much in the political life of the nation. New self-understandings have left women feeling estranged from an old order of patterns of relationship—whether in church or society or in their private lives. And when they try to share their new self-understanding they find that their words are like a foreign language to the culture and to the church. If they speak of a new order in which they are called into mutuality with one another and with men, their words are heard as nonsense. Sometimes, like the psalmist, they sing sadly of a new Jerusalem, promised in a gospel which reveals a reality that has not yet been fully understood or achieved.
Not only do women in ministry experience themselves as somehow homeless, or not at home in their world, but they may understand their very ministry as a ministry of making others homeless, of dislocating both women and men from past structures of relationship and past roles in human life and labor. Theirs may be a ministry of fostering radical shifts in human self-understanding and in social opportunities, jarring every order until all persons are accepted as equal and as capable of entering into relationships marked by mutuality and reciprocity.

Whatever meaning this understanding of minister and ministry has for us, it nonetheless is strange as a focus of emphasis on the occasion of an ordination. That is, it may seem strange until it strikes us as reminiscent of the experience of Jesus Christ as minister and as ministering. Jesus, after all, had some reason for observing that foxes have dens and birds of the air their nests, but one sent especially by God might have nowhere to lay his head. And there was not just wistfulness in Jesus’ cry, “We played the pipes for you and you would not dance; we sang dirges and you would not mourn,” nor only regret in his prediction, “You will all desert me.” An identity which entailed a sign of contradiction was inevitably a stumbling block for those who were building temple-homes.

Moreover, the ministry of Jesus was a disruptive ministry, disturbing families and overturning understandings and bringing the sword, not peace, to old categories and patterns and structures. “You have learned how it was said...,” but now there is something more. “I have come to set one member of a family against another,” though all are called from home. It begins to dawn on us that ministry which has homelessness at its center and a disruption of home as its goals is a radical expression of Christian ministry and a radical expression of Christian life.

But, of course, it is not enough to say that ministry is necessarily bound up with homelessness. The whole story says something more than that. Homelessness is, at its heart, paradoxical. The Christian is not at home, but yet is at home. The Christian minister makes persons homeless, but brings them home. Jesus, who had no home, was always at home. “As the Father is in men, I am in you,” and there is no fuller home. “We shall come and make our home in you,” and no one will be homeless. “If you make my word your home, you will indeed by my disciples.”

Though the ministry of Jesus rendered persons homeless, its aim was to make them finally at home. “Jesrusalem, Jerusalem, how I would have gathered…,” and there was scattering only where an alien world would not be transformed. The stone rejected by the builders became, nonetheless, a keystone. Whether in this world or another, there are many rooms in Yahweh’s house, and if there were not “I would have told you.” Even the way to where one may find home is made clear: “Stay with me.”

Marie has told us something of her understanding of herself as minister and her work in ministry. We have some inkling of the choices she has made against the background of the experience of women in the earliest beginnings of the church.
“When the women returned from the tomb they told all this to the Eleven and to all the others. The women were Mary of Magdala, Joannna, and Mary the mother of James. The other women also told the apostles, but this story of theirs seemed pure nonsense, and they did not believe them.”

We have some inkling of the connection she knows between her experience and theirs as she brings to our memory tonight the psalmist’s lament and hope.

“We had been asked to sing to our captors, to entertain those who had carried us off: ‘Sing’ they said ‘some hymns of Zion.’ How could we sing one of Yahweh’s hymns in a strange country? Jerusalem….May I never speak again if I forget you! If I do not count Jerusalem the greatest of my joys!”

In her choice of these readings Marie helps us to understand better the mystery of her ordination and the place of her ministry and that of many women within the church and the world.

At home, yet not at home, Marie commits herself to stand within the church. She forfeits, as it were, but her ordination, the opportunity to stand outside the church. “This is where I make my home.” However not at home, yet at home; however challenging, yet embracing; “this is where I make my home.”

We who know Marie know, too, that she takes her stand within the world. Hers is a special commitment to the “unchurched.” There are yet more stones of justice to be placed before there is in this world room for all persons. The clarity of Marie’s challenge to a social and political order marked by sexism and racism is such that persons may be scattered before they are gathered, rendered homeless before they can make a home to live in. We may ourselves be among those whom Marie challenges, but tonight we know that in our world, too, “this is where I make my home.” Though never completely at home, never completely departing; “this is where I make my home.”

Finally, those of us who have been close friends and associates of Marie know another way in which both she and we can be at home. That is to say, those who are in some sense homeless can nonetheless make their home in one another’s hearts. The mystery of friendship and shared ministry can include the mystery of putting down one’s roots in the hearts of one’s friends. “Stay with me.” The farther we must go apart, the more alone our journeys in strange lands, the more important it is to know the possibility of being at home in one another. Women in ministry today have found in this a radically new way of being at home in the church and in the world. They have found it in a way which holds them in the home which is the very life of God.

Tonight, then, there is an ordination to ministry so marked by mutuality that we must live with Marie in the paradox of homelessness. She and we must make our home in the Word, and live in one another’s hearts. Our ministry has always something to do with freeing all persons from the possibility of only living in a strange land. Until there is a full and lasting home for all, may Marie find a home in us – a home so anchored in Jesus Christ that she can go forth, never leaving; and she can come, never having been away.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Dinner Conversation

we speak in circles, dancing
using language as the music that
guides partners, bringing us closer
and pulling us apart
we stop only long enough to catch our
breath, to learn new steps but
there is never enough quiet to feel
each other’s scars; the music begins
again I want to hold your hand
for a moment my heart beats differently
than yours but it still beats if you
would hold my hand you’d know that,
I want to say, but instead we
dance and I am spinning
and you are laughing so how
could I possibly want more?

Erin K. Carter

Voice Chapel Sermon

Delivered April 19, 1999

Hush! Can you hear them yet?

Hush! The women of the tomb whisper across time and space to a waiting people, a groaning people, a people who yearn to know the truth.
“It’s all true they whisper. Every word of it is true. Jesus lived and died and raised for all.”

Life is all about crossing the boundaries with hope, vision and words as the dreamers, visionaries and voice of solidarity. We take our cues from God made real in the world. From God made real in the words of scripture and from the communities of witness of which we are each a part. We must strive no longer to be afraid to break it down and write it out.

Audre Lorde, in her essay “The Transformation of Language into Silence and Action,” talks about the problem with keeping our dreams and vision and words inside of us. She says “Of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of my topic and my difficulty with it, said, ‘Tell them about how you are never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there is always that one piece inside you that wants to spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just jump up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.”
Of course the women at the tomb were afraid. They were filled with the same kind of fear Lorde refers to in her essay. Yet they were not only afraid. Not only did terror seize them, but amazement too. Our ancestors in faith, these women of old, knew the truth and yet could not find the words to tell the world. It is the unsettling ending of Mark and the one I prefer to believe. I believe it because of the wonder and terror and amazement I feel in me each time I tell the story.
I can tell the story because that first story declared all humanity saved. Through the angel, Jesus sent this message for all the world for all time. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, much was revealed through outsiders and mediated through Christ. Now God through Christ was mediating his redemptive message of salvation for all through the voices of these women. The outsiders did get it. They had gotten in right all the time.

What does it say to us if the supposed “outsiders” are the one who have it now? What is our role as very educated insider-type folks?

I think it says LISTEN. You see, just because the women kept silent then, that does not mean they never shared the message. The more I work with those who are on the margin of our well-ordered society, the more I believe that the women at the tomb-Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome- whisper across time and share the truth of the Gospel story with the women and girl children and boy children and men who unexpectedly call us to truth, as the Syrophoenician woman herself called Jesus to truth.


…the senior citizen who is discounted because she does not move as fast this world pushes us to move. There is life in her…life she deserves to live abundantly…if you ask and listen you never know what she will share…I have a card on my wall with a quote from Gloria Steinem that reads…”Some day an army of gray haired women will quietly take over the earth”…listen as they whisper the plans and dreams passed on to them from the whispers of Mary and Mary and Salome.

…the women living in the realities of mental illness…hear the dark dreams and haunting visions that feel real and often hurt.

….the children of the world who still ask questions boldly and just as they hear them coming in…they do not wait or hold the thought or try to decide what the right words are…we could learn a lot more if we asked the questions a child asks.
The women whisper to a wanting, groaning world. We must then take our cues from the prophets or old as we listen: Habakkuk tells us to write the vision. We do have a part because this is no longer an insider/outsider process. Jesus turned it all upside down and it is humanity’s job to be the dreamers and visionaries and voices in this time and place.

I was reminded the other day of a song that one of the members of “Sweet Honey and the Rock” shared with us when the Women’s Center led a trip to hear Alice Walker speak: She taught us to sing, “We are the Ones we’ve been waiting for.” We…the collective we.

We learn a lot here and it is important to exegete well – in the task of exegesis comes the power to deliver a liberating message of God. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz charges us to be hermeneutically vigilant. Yet we must balance the acts of hermeneutical vigilance with remembering that the first messages were given to the dreamers and the visionaries and the women of voice and name and action in the Bible stories.

We must be dreamers. We should all perfect the art of day dreaming. If you’re going to day-dream (and let’s face it: the perfect climate is found in the heat of Room 113 when the doors are closed and the heat is on in the middle of April), you might as well try to perfect it as an art. Be a dreamer.

We must be visionaries. In the first chapter the prophet Habakkuk laments that there is no justice as he cries out to the Lord. Standing at the watchpost, the Lord replies: “Write the Vision; make it plain on tablets so a runner may read it. For there is a vision for the appointed time. It speaks of the end and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”
The vision does not always come in out time or on our schedule. Be patient and wait and listen and watch and hear.

Being a visionary means daring to live such a life that, at the end of it, a person will say about your life of faith: “She lived as if she were convicted of hope and arrested by grace daily.” It is a daily struggle. Our job as theologians is not just to know what all of the previous theologians said. We are also charged with the responsibility to unlearn the myths and search the truth of daily life lived with God in the midst of a groaning world. We must translate groaning and whispers into words and proclaim that vision. We must listen to what the whispering women tell us. We must also be voices in solidarity with life and truth in the world. We must not wait for the entire vision of the world, as God sees it, to be revealed. We must voice that we have seen and see and feel, and we must not be afraid.
The truth is, my friends, we all share in the responsibilities of dreaming, writing, and voicing a bold new vision. The way we do church and the way we live is not working…it often excludes more people than it includes. We need to listen and to write bold new visions. It is important to try to see ourselves in others, but, if we are truly to meet God’s message of salvation and reconciliation in this world, we must stop looking only to ourselves and for God in the people who look and feel like us.

There are gentle reminders of God in the cracks of New Haven…This is the part of my job I do not really like. It is Sunday morning. I am preaching in approximately an hour and I still have one more carload of children to pick up before church (and they probably won’t be ready either!). The familiar plea: “Can we put on 94.3 WYBC?” I don’t know why I attempt conversation. I should just have the radio on before they even get in; then I would not even have to worry about trying to connect with these kids early on a Sunday morning, these kids who live and see things I will never know or comprehend. What kind of connection do I expect to make as I ask all of the same questions every adult in America asks a child when that adult really does not know what that child is truly about?

Why they even get in the care in the first place is often a mystery to me. Once we get to the church I can almost guarantee that these two children will be the basis for my patience-building exercises as they push me to the edge of Sunday morning sanity. As I turn on the radio and change the station I am mentally preparing for my sermon and leaving my captives to listen to their radio station. The voice that drifts in the care through the one working speaker proclaims boldly “Our God is an Awesome God…” J pipes up from spot in the back, “Hey, we sign this at day camp!” He begins to sing along with the refrain. His sister begins to sing also as she fidgets in the coveted front seat position. For voices that often bring my nerves to the edge, they sound surprisingly beautiful as they proclaim the awesomeness of God. As we rumble down Orchard Street toward the church I find that the children and me have become a “We.” And so we made our way to the church singing: one tough guy on the edge of teenage madness, one young girl who longs for love and fights the love she receives with an equal humble song sung by the Resurrection Rag-Tag Traveling Chorus: “Our God is an Awesome God…God who cannot be contained in one voice or thought, God whose name is proclaimed by many, God who loves us all.”
The keepers of the vision and the inspiration for our dreaming are found in this world, or are they also afraid to speak the truths that have been whispered to them. Are they afraid we are not listening? Do they sit in amazement at the truth and long to share it? I think that we all need some teeth knocked out for the things we say and do not say for fear.

Today we celebrate the publication VOICE and the women who were bold enough to write the vision and make it plain…I give thanks to God for the courage and strength of the bold dreams and visions of the voices which appear in print.

WE ARE the ones we have been waiting for to proclaim in VOICE the awesomeness of God mediated in the whisperings and dreaming.

Lori Kochanski