May 14, 2017
Fifth Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2:2-10
It is wonderful to be here with you all today. Despite the infrequency of my visits, Seekers has become something akin to a second or third spiritual home for me – a place I know I will belong, as well as find beauty and rest. And it is one of a very small constellation of congregations that I will encourage my spiritually restless friends and acquaintances to visit; where I know they will be received with love and a hospitable curiosity concerning their lives. As a space frequently used by The Potter’s House and Interfaith Power and Light for retreats, Seekers has come to signify for me a set aside place for conversations about the things that matter most: our vision, our values, and the sacred and mundane means we will use to strive towards them. I want to thank you, too, for all of your continued support of our efforts on Columbia Road. It is difficult to express how much it means to me to receive a kind note and gift out of the blue, particularly during a period when I and we have felt stretched and challenged, sometimes to our limits.
To be reminded that what we are doing is holy work, and that we have wider circle carrying us and praying for us, has been a profound and resonating blessing. Thank you.
As perhaps you’ve come to expect from me, I will not hew too closely to the texts this morning, but will aim to weave in some of the themes from the readings in Acts and 1 Peter. My sharing this morning draws heavily from the new commentary on Acts written by Willie James Jennings.
Jennings’ first book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and The Origins of Race, traces the collusion of the Christian story with colonial modernity, and points toward a recovery of the lived reality of faith through a deep joining to the people and places around us in ways that exceed territory, property, and even preconceived identity. Shaping our vision for the renewed Potter’s House, it helped us to articulate that the core of our mission is to bring people together who are different from one another – and to trust that good will grow from such unlikely and uncommon joining. By some tellings, this is the story of The Potter’s House all along.
The question I want to wrestle with today is at its root quite simple. And yet it is one that answered in the affirmative could change everything. Do we belong to one another? Let me ask that one more time – do we belong to one another? It is no secret that our country is deeply divided. And the forces presently in power appear hell bent on securing the future of some over and against the needs and dreams of a multitude of others. We have seen the muscular re-emergence of white supremacy, no longer a founding principle to be reckoned with but a presumption to drive policy. Plans for a multi-billion dollar border wall to block the entry of migrants from Mexico and Central America are well underway, while airports have become the new battleground for whether or not Muslims and those of Middle Eastern descent can ever be truly American. After decades of failed criminal justice policy, leading to the hyper-incarceration of predominantly black and brown bodies, the Justice department has just doubled down—encouraging prosecutors to show no mercy and enforce mandatory minimums whatever the cost. On this Mother’s Day, there is perhaps no better example of the fantasy of rugged individualism than the notion that healthcare plans for men should not have to share costs for women’s reproductive health and maternal services. On nearly every front, there seems to be a willed refusal of our innate, creaturely connection to one another.
Let’s admit, too, that the divide is not only issuing from the echelons of power. There is little dialogue going on between those of us in places like Adams Morgan and Takoma Park and the people from say, my home state of Indiana. And I count myself here as well. For those of us with privilege on the coasts, where property values continue to rise and employment opportunities remain relatively plentiful, it is often easier to dismiss Trump supporters as fools and racists than wrestle with the deep pain emanating from these communities. While there are complex histories behind why it is easier for us to identify with the pain of some and not others, including the role of white entitlement or what W.E.B. Du Bois called the “psychological wage” paid to the white working class, the fact remains that people are dying and being left behind in places like Youngstown and Anderson, too. Is it any wonder that a people consistently told they are better than others, upon being abandoned by the world at large for over forty years, would turn to a strongman in hopes of securing their future? Absent any real alternative born of hard won coalitional possibility, the divides and fault lines seem destined to grow.
It is in the midst of this unfolding crisis that the book of Acts would speak to us. For it is here that we begin to see new possibilities for a life together in common, spaces previously unimaginable opened up and enlivened by the Spirit. All throughout Acts, the Spirit is at work transgressing boundaries of who is in and who is out; radically overturning worldly notions of power and authority. She enflames the tongues of the Apostles at Pentecost and enables those gathered to hear word of this emerging reality in their own language. She weaves new threads of belonging amongst the haves and have-nots, ushering in a way where there is enough for all. She frees prisoners in refusal of Roman notions of law and order, signaling that faith under empire will in some sense always be fugitive. She emboldens Stephen, a border Jew whose identity was already in question, to testify before the authorities about an expansive vision of Israel’s life beyond the Temple system. Speaking through Peter’s hunger, she scrambles long held notions of clean and unclean and prepares him to welcome an outsider, a former oppressor even, to baptism. She radically upends the life of Saul, self-appointed protector of the people, and sends him to live among those he would have sooner seen dead. Throughout the book, it is the Spirit that confounds and frustrates the best-made plans, even those intended as acts of faithfulness. It is for this reason that New Testament scholar Justo Gonzalez writes that the Book of Acts, long known as Acts of the Apostles, is perhaps better titled Acts of the Spirit.
Intervening between the anxieties of Diaspora and dominance of Empire, the Spirit offers a new world to both – an unexpected and previously unrealizable life in common gathered around God’s celebration of cultural difference. This bringing together of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, Jennings describes as the revolution of the intimate. It points to a way beyond the trauma of exile, where efforts to ensure the physical and cultural survival of a threatened people lead to strict boundary policing and self-imposed segregation. Even more pointedly, it refuses the ruse of Empire-driven assimilation, in which subject people are ‘integrated’ into a violent and unequal world order to secure the smooth functioning of profit and power. In their place, the Spirit creates expansive space that makes possible the overcoming of fear. Spaces in which Gentiles and Jews touch, come to know one another and learn their stories, and delight in their different gifts. These inhabitable, intimate realities serve as living counterpoints to the order of things. They are erotic in that they intend the reshaping of our desires towards those whom the Spirit draws us, and they involve all of our creaturely senses. Joining deeply with others who are different from us emerges not from a should, but a want, a hunger. From no people, and among peoples where there was only enmity, a shared reality emerges that is not only novel but also attractive.
These spaces are revolutionary in that living fully into them—and co-creating them with the Spirit where they are not—will overturn everything. They certainly do so throughout the book of Acts. And I believe that a recovery of the church as a fully embodied, erotic reality—one that joins in intimate yet expansive embrace with the people and places to which it is sent by the Spirit—would do the same in our own time. In many ways, The Church of the Saviour can be understood as a long-running experiment in creating spaces for intimacy and belonging. Both my experiences in a mission group and those that others have shared with me testify to those. Where else are we known in our depths outside the confines of the couple or a few close friends? Where else can we open ourselves to our brokenness and know we will still be welcomed? And over the years, a number of these mission groups have resonated widely, creating new life with neighbors across societal divides and weaving a fabric of care in the wake of tattered safety nets. Other mission groups have intervened powerfully into the entrenched masculine culture of the church, prioritizing women’s voices, lifting up affective and artistic modes of knowing, and celebrating fully the gifts of LGBTQ persons within the community. In all these ways and more, The Church of the Saviour has sought to express a Pentecost vision of communal belonging – and it has been not only beautiful for those who have lived it but also life-giving to many who have never heard the name.
At the same time, a faithful reckoning with our story requires us to wrestle with the ways that deeper belonging continues to elude us. Racial, cultural, and economic segregation continue to order our world, with few spaces where we interact deeply across difference, making being apart from one another appear almost natural. And for all the strides we have made as The Church of the Saviour community we continue to struggle, like so many others seeking to be faithful but unsure of the ways forward. I don’t have answers, and I’m certainly not here as the judge. I share the questions. How might we intervene in over 500 years of colonial dynamics without repeating our roles as missionary or mercenary, believing we are either here to save or take? What is our power to claim for change, and where is our privilege preventing us from seeing what is in fact our powerlessness? What would a reconciling, resonating life together across our creaturely differences even look like? And would I like it at first? I confess I’m not quite sure.
At The Potter’s House, we try to live in and with questions on a daily basis. We believe that hipsters and the homeless belong together. We believe that longtime Church of the Saviour members and people brand new to DC belong together. We believe that anarchists and evangelicals belong together. What this means on the ground, and how to live creatively within the tensions that inevitably arise, is not always clear. Over the past few years at I have had to wrestle a lot more with the dream, the daily realities, and the distance between them. There was a time when I thought acknowledging that gap with anything other than steely reserve to immediately resolve it was selling out. I hope that my growing relationship with that gap is becoming something more akin to spiritual maturity. That’s not to let me or us off the hook for our failures to fully embody the vision; it’s simply a recognition that we are in process and that the struggles of the outside world don’t end at the door. (I really hoped they would.) I’ve been learning, too, that the deeper you go the more you see the pain. After running full-speed since March of 2015, our internal burnout began late last year, just around the same time we all learned that the next four years would likely be unbelievably hard. We were tired, stressed, and angry. And a number of people on staff were also deeply afraid. And to be honest, most of us feel much of the same six months later. The need to just keep everything running has sometimes prevented us from having the deeper conversations we need to have, and at times we have hung back in our respective corners. The costs of living in DC continue to outpace the compensation we can provide, even as we strive to do better than your average service industry gig. We are asking big questions about commitment, purpose, and equity, and wondering how we might shift from what’s becoming a frenzied culture of doing to something more rooted in being.
I remain incredibly proud of the work we do at The Potter’s House – and there have a number of moments recently where I have thought ‘this is exactly what we are here for.’ Several members of the Board have told me that where we are right now is pretty typical for the lifecycle of a mission-driven organization. And I trust we will get through this time and come to a deeper place. I share our struggles with you today not to raise undue alarm but because I believe we need each other. Listening to the Spirit, remaining open for her redirection, is not something we can do alone or in isolation. Thank you for walking alongside us.
I share them, too, because I believe they are the birth pangs of something new. And those of us willing to follow the Spirit’s lead may just serve as its midwives. So many of us know that the old ways no longer work, and hunger for a transformation beyond the tired roles we’ve come to know. We want to live into and create that new world now. In the words of Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, and current fellow at Union Theological Seminary:
I have been struggling with the frame of resistance for sometime….I think we’ve got to think beyond resistance. Resistance is inherently defensive, and as I see it, we are part of a bold and beautiful revolutionary movement that aims to rebirth this country….As I see it Trump is the resistance. There is a revolutionary spirit alive and well that is trying to birth a new America. [They] are resisting, wanting to take America back. And if we are going to do the work that is required to build truly transformational movements, in which there is any hope of us building a multiracial, multiethnic, multi-faith, multi-gender democracy in which every voice and every life truly matters, we are going to have to connect, tap into, and embrace that revolutionary spirit, the spirits of the ancestors, the freedom fighters, who came before us, and say we’re not about resistance—we’re about building a revolutionary movement for the collective liberation of us all.
This revolution is one that will not be won with guns. It is a rebirth that will come only through the creation of spaces for intimacy, belonging, and joining alongside others we’ve yet to know and love as ourselves. Its Spirit will be the same one that captivated the Apostles at Pentecost, reshaping their desires toward a new life in common with others. May She claim us too.