Do Seminarians Dream Dreams of Electric Chapels?

IMG_3074 I think, maybe, just maybe, I had my first seminary dream about General Seminary last night. I’m not sure how the dream started and I don’t think my seminary was the point of the dream at all but, there it was, hanging out. However, GTS wasn’t located where it usually is in Chelsea; nor was the entire campus there. Rather, the front of the chapel was located in my neighborhood of Washington Heights. And, not only that, it was not really a chapel anymore. It had become one of those storefronts where the merchandise spills out into the street and the entire front is covered in clothes hanging from hangers. And the front was entirely black because it was covered in cassocks. They had cassocks of all sizes! Small, large, child-size, etc. I think there was even a cassock spanx option and, I kid you not, they even had those half mannequins, the ones that are just legs but have some extra room in the back (if you know what I mean) to model jeans, with cassocks on them. Cars, taxies, traffic, and people were wizzing by as I stopped to take a look. My friend Anne came out to talk to me, and several of my friends were moving cassocks from one spot to another. I don’t think they were actually trying to sell anything – they were just moving things up, down, left, right, and using that giant hook to reach the top hangers. And the chapel even had its own awning with pigeons walking along it.

The Chapel of the Good Shepherd as a literal storefront church – that would be pretty wild. I don’t think of mainline protestant churches as storefronts. Even the storefront churches in my neighborhood are being closed down and transformed back into restaurants, stores, and condos. The very idea of a “storefront church” seems rather foreign in a neighborhood that is being gentrified. But it would be wild to take the seminary’s chapel, a chapel that is designed to perform the daily office, and that is locked inside the fortress walls of General Seminary, and put it right out there, on the street, so that anyone could access it. It seems that every week, as I leave seminary, someone on the street and speaks to me that they didn’t know a church was there until they heard the chimes. People don’t really look up, they don’t see signs labeling the building or the entrances; something needs to catch their eye or their ears and intrude into their iPod/iPhone earbud shielded worlds. I wonder if a storefront full of black cassocks, on a Good Friday, when the sky is darkened as Jesus’ breathed his last on the cross – I wonder if all that pious black, would somehow crack into a random passerby’s world, just for a moment, or if, being New Yorkers, we’d need a little more – like some chimes, a loud cry, or maybe a Mr. Softie Ice Cream truck – church style. Hmmm. I don’t know. But a Mr. Softie Ice Cream truck playing A Mighty Fortress is My God might get noticed.

Rethinking Heaven: Teaser

It seems that Time Magazine didn’t want to let Newsweek be the only one to talk about Jesus this week. Rethinking Heaven is Time’s foray into eschatology. I wish I could read the whole thing but I’m not a subscriber. The cover enticed me and, I’ll admit, I want that guys shoes. However, the Politico Playbook felt like sending out a teaser today.

Heaven Can’t Wait: Why rethinking the hereafter could make the world a better place”: “Angels and harps are all well and good, [some younger] Christians believe, but fighting HIV/AIDS is more urgent. This younger generation is driven by … issues of social justice like combatting slavery and homelessness. … The debate doesn’t fit easily on the usual left-right, blue-red, liberal-conservative spectrum. … The divide isn’t about a secular ideal of service vs. a religiously infused vision of reality. It’s about whether believing Christians see earthly life as inextricably bound up with eternal life or as simply a prelude to a heavenly existence elsewhere. …

“I’m a Christian-a poor one, to be sure-who keeps the feast and says his prayers . For me, the scholarly redefinition of heaven as a manifestation of God’s love on earth … at once puts believers in closer proximity to the intent of the New Testament authors and should inspire the religious to open their arms more often than they point fingers. Heaven thus becomes, for now, the reality one creates in the service of the poor, the sick, the enslaved, the oppressed. It is not paradise in the sky but acts of selflessness and love that bring God’s sacred space and grace to a broken world suffused with tragedy until, in theological terms, the unknown hour when the world we struggle to piece together is made whole again.”

Now, I know that this is a generalized news magazine and, based on the quote above, I’m pretty sure that they’re arguing for a scholarly redefinition of heaven that is based, largely, on what is going around in “Evangelical” circles ever since Rob Bell wrote his book last year. “Evangelicals” seem to make a lot of noise so and they seem to have numbers, so they get the articles. But I’m having a hard time seeing how this redefinition of heaven is “new.” I’m currently reading Carl Braaten’s Eschatology and Ethics for my Ethics class and his book, in many ways, is about a basic definition of eschatology where the future is breaking into the current world. It is an eschatology grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ which “announces the future with the power to shape the present(pg. 70).” And this idea isn’t new. Braaten’s book was written in 1972 and I’m sure that Luther, and Augustine, wrote similarly. My guess, in many ways, is that Time’s new article is a story on the re-structuring of what The Book of Revelation says. It sounds like the article is going to report that young Christians, now, are not buying into the escapism that dominated the conversation, in certain Christian circles, for so long. And, sure, I could easily attack the line about creating heaven on earth but I’m gonna give the quote the benefit of the doubt and let it slide because, well, I don’t have the full article.

It was well planned to leak or release this article on Maundy Thursday. Later this evening, I will gather with my fellow Christians at my field site and we will wash each other’s feet. We will share in Holy Communion and we will, at least briefly, share in Christ’s service. At the end of the service, the altar will be stripped, and the lights lowered as we begin the walk into Good Friday. A rethinking of heaven, grounded in a “realized eschatology” grounded on…something…, could be linked to the act that we commemorate today in our liturgy. But I wonder if this article is going to miss the boat when it comes to mainline churches, especially us Lutherans. I’m pretty young, and I haven’t been in this church for decades, but this image of eschatology appears to play a role in what the Lutheran church has done for many, many years. Luther’s cry for all of us to be “little Christs” to one another is a cry that hasn’t just been rediscovered now. And I hope that little bit shows up in the article. If it doesn’t, then that might be a sign that us Lutherans need to do a better PR job.

Silver Chalice, Dish Soap, Love Affair

This morning, while serving as an acolyte at my school’s chapel, I discovered a fun fact. It seems that if you use dish soap to clean a silver chalice, the soap clings to the silver and does not come off if you rinse it. For those on chapel duty, or who are partaking in the heavenly meal of Eucharist, you are left with communion wine that tastes not only a tad soapy but the taste lingers for quite awhile. So, when it comes to silver chalices, the method used to clean cast iron pans works best or else Jesus just doesn’t go down easy. Though I guess you could run with this idea and make quite a few jokes about Jesus being the New Dawn. Anti-bacterial Jesus, leaves hands lemony fresh!

Conquistador Paul

In my course on First & Second Corinthians, we examine the letters from Paul through various perspectives, contexts, contemporary theological movements, and racial/ethnical/colonial lenses. It involves a lot of reading of contrasting opinions and views that usually leaves my brain feeling over-saturated, full, and completely confused which is a lot of fun, to be honest.

This past week, the concept of Paul as colonizer came up. I’ll admit, I struggled with this view a lot. In certain ways, this image makes sense. Paul, leaving Judea & Antioch, traveled through out Asia Minor and Greece, established (or met with) communities of the Jesus movement. He viewed himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles and planted communities everywhere. In his letters, we can trace the conflicts he had with the communities he interacted with. This image, of taking the message of Jesus out, into new lands, and waving his authority around, seems to match our understanding of what it means to “colonize.” And, for post-colonial people, seeing Paul as a colonizer helps to build a lens of Paul that doesn’t assume that the authoritative structures that he interacted with (or revolted against) and that later Christianity developed and imposed on others, should be accepted as the default meaning of what the Scriptures says. This image worked in the classroom and I saw many of my classmates move see this image of Paul and relate it to colonial movements throughout history. But I struggled with it because I really have a hard time seeing Paul as a colonizer since the image of colonization that I envision is what happened in the New World. England, France, and especially Spain’s, use of military force, economic might, and disease to destroy, conquer, and the native americans of the Americas is how I imagine colonization to be. It’s hard for me to see Paul as a conquistador since he didn’t have a Spanish Galleon supporting him (though, legend has it, he did have the horse).

Of course, my model of colonization isn’t the only one that existed in the world. The British experience in India, the United States with Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and other stories of imperialism doesn’t necessarily follow the New World movement to a T. But there is the issue of force applied to those situations and this force seems non-existing in Paul’s letter. Sure, Paul throws his authority around and tries to claim that he has force (and his language can be very violent and angry), but he doesn’t have the external force that I envision colonizers to have. And his argument for the subjection, or containment, of the subs-sections of his community, while forceful, are actually limited in the larger scheme of things. It was Rome, not Paul, who was the imperial power and it was Rome, not Paul, that re-founded Corinth as a Roman colony. The best image, in my mind, for Paul would be if Native Americans had sent a mission to Spain in 1510 – a mission that didn’t involve them arriving in chains.

Now, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see Paul as a colonizer nor do I think it unreasonable to see the later pastoral epistles and its structuring of authority as a direction towards imperialism. Nor should my problem with seeing Paul as a colonizer in anyway get Christianity off the hook for its role in the history of imperialism and colonization. But I just can’t seem to subjectively withdraw, take a step back, and see him as the role of the conquistador. And the fact that I keep using that term is part of the problem. My own experience, as a Mexican-American, has embedded my image of colonization through the hispanic experience. It isn’t that I don’t have the imagination to see the colonial experience through other lenses but that I can’t seem to just…get it. I guess that’s one of my biases then.

You say Potato, I say…..Potato

Yesterday morning, my second semester New Testament survey course had a guest lecturer (Dr. McGowan, Warden of Trinity College, Melbourne). The topic of conversation was food, the Lord’s Supper, and the tradition of the banquet in the Greco-Roman world. It was fantastic.

However, right before the lecture started, the TA encouraged people to move up (everyone sat in back). She waved her arms, shouted, encouraged us to move, at a glacial pace, towards the front. Some moved, most didn’t. When the TA asked “why are you all sitting in the back?”, my friend responded “We’re Episcopalians.” I turned to him and said, “oh, we would have called them Lutherans.”

Considering how long it took us to develop the Call to Common Mission, with our tendency to sit in the back of the room, the ecumenical movement should have moved faster. We’re alike!

Great Expectations: 3rd Sunday in Lent Sermon

My sermon from this morning, typos and all. I always forget how much of this I change on the fly – little additions here, different stresses, hand motions, etc. I think there was between 170-180 people today at church (between the two services).

3rd Sunday in Lent (Exodus 20:1-17;Psalm 19;1 Corinthians 1:18-25;John 2:13-22).
Advent Lutheran Church, New York City
March 11, 2012

Great Expectations: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

We’ve got some great lessons this week, don’t we?
There’s Jesus, in the temple, throwing out the money changers – Rambo style – and then there’s Moses coming down the mountain, and delivering the ten commandments – and then we have Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians talking about the cross being a stumbling block and foolishness. And it’s that line from Corinthians that I seem to see a lot.
Earlier this week, I visited Union Seminary’s library, digging around for some old magazines – and rather than getting a stack of old paper or a pdf or computer files – the librarian went ahead and handed me these weird little boxes containing…film? And I had to go thread the film into this giant noisy machine, with levers and knobs and pulleys. And with the article displayed on this giant screen in front of me , I would cycle through the pages and it would make that noise che-che-che-che-che-che as the pages zoomed by. And I stopped, and right there, on the cover of the magazine, below the title, in big bold letters, was First Corinthians, verse 23: “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
In a way, that phrase is one of those rallying points for us I think. It’s a phrase we love to say, to hear, to call as our own. It’s a phrase that seems to say that God is bigger than our expectations, that God doesn’t work the way we sometimes imagine, and that God is bigger than who we imagine ourselves to be. And there’s a lot of hope in that.
And as I soaked in 1 Corinthians 23 as the sub-title for the magazine, I couldn’t help but notice the date. 1914. The same year that the hopes of the 19th century – of so much progress – the development of so many things that we take for granted now – modern medicine, the rise of the middle class, the birth of New York City, flight, industrialization, electric lights, movies, radio, and even the subway – that century where so much hope was put into the idea of progress – that magazine cover, with that verse of hope in big bold letters on it – came from the same year when all that progress – all that human ingenuity, strength, power – all those great expectations – they all came crashing down with the start of World War One.
1850 years, or so, before that – Paul had an issue on his hands. He had just received word that there were issues in the Corinth community. Paul had moved on, gone off to spread the gospel in a new place. And when Chloe’s people told him what was going on in Corinth, how splits were developing within the community, he felt he had to step in. So, he wrote to them. In the beginning of our letter, he lays out some ground rules. He asserts his authority as founder of the community, he works on breaking down the sides that people had started to form – with one side saying I’m on Paul’s side, the other on Apollos, the other on Christ’s – and he lays into the power of the cross and he does that by burying our trust in wisdom, signs, and miracles, saying that God’s weakness is greater than any human strength.
So why does Paul only talk about miracles, signs, and wisdom?
I mean, I think those are things we can relate to. I think those are things our brothers and sisters 100 years ago could relate to. That…trust, that the more we learn, the more we discuss, the more we share, the more we discover, the better we’ll become; the stronger we will become. That, somehow, we can out think our way out of issues, and, sure it might take awhile – but we’ll get there. We’re always improving. Our science, our morality, our education, our politics, our economy, our…progress. There’s trust there. Or maybe it’s more of a trust in ourselves, of what we can do. And, if that doesn’t work, well, hey – we go to church, we pray – God will take care of it. That’s a kind of strength.
But…there’s something missing there. And I think the Corinthians would have noticed that too because how can you, when talking about those things that are powerful, wise, the epitome of human strength – how could Paul, and us, forget about who dominated both the Greeks and the scattered Jewish People throughout the Mediterranean world? Why doesn’t Paul mention Rome?
I mean, in his day, and for the people of Corinth, Rome was strength – the sheer image of human might. The Greeks might have given the world philosophy, and the Chosen People brought God to the world – but both had been conquered by Rome. Both had to bend their knee to the Emperor. Both were just one of many peoples who had succumbed to the military, political, and economic might of Rome.
And Corinth itself, at this time, wasn’t a Grecian City. It had been recently destroyed by Rome and re-colonized, a few generations before, by veterans of the army. The Corinthians that Paul taught the gospel to were descendants of Rome’s military machine. And the city was built in the image of Rome and was covered in images of what it meant to be a part of Rome. It was in the air – that not only was the Roman Empire powerful, but that Rome was divinely blessed, led by a son of the gods, and Rom had the right to conquer everyone and everything. Paul’s Corinthian community, in their everyday lives, as they went to the market, or the temple, or out to the fields to work – they would’ve passed countless statues – and these statues would be of slaves, of conquered warriors, of prisoners of war, being powerless, insignificant, and weak. Some would have their bodies bent, arms behind their backs, holding up roofs and columns and towers – like this (DEMONSTRATE) – like gargoyles on some old building today but rather than monsters – they were people caught up in Rome’s might.
It’s not the Greek’s wisdom or the Jewish God that would have seem oh so powerful to the Corinthians – that’s not human strength – human strength, divine strength – that was Rome.
And this Rome was so powerful, that it took the land of Judah.
And when it met Jesus – the Son of God – who the Corinthian community claimed as divine – that Rome crucified him, like he was a common criminal, a slave. He was insignificant – a mosquito to be swatted and nothing more.
Because that was Rome’s expectation of what it meant to handle any one person who had the audacity to cause a scene in a religious center.
That person who had the audacity to bring good news to the poor, to cure the sick, to feed the hungry, to love.
That person who had the audacity to challenge the systems of expectations that we have – and Rome had – and Corinth had – about who is powerful, who is mighty, and who deserves dignity, and who deserves God’s grace and mercy.
I think the Corinthian community would have read that mention of human strength at the end of our reading – and they would have thought of Rome.
And how so very odd it is to proclaim, and teach, and talk, and believe – it that supposed insignificant man that Rome killed.
Rome’s power and belief in itself was all around them.
And, yet, that Corinthian community proclaimed the unrealistic.
As we go through Lent – we began remembering where we came – from insignificant dust – and as we walk together on the path towards Calvary –
Where we’ll see Jesus, like those statues of slaves in Corinth, his head down, his body broken –
But he won’t be bent.
Because Jesus’s arms that day weren’t bent behind his back.
They were open, nailed to the Cross, and spread as wide as they could possibly be.
For God has something else planned
Something that didn’t rest on our own powers
our own thoughts on what it means to be great, or strong, or smart, or wise
or whatever is in the air.
But, instead, Jesus’s arms are open wide
welcoming all of us –
and showing that God’s love does not depend on us.
And that its God’s expectations that have the final say
Because its through Jesus….. that Jesus Christ, crucified,
where we find exactly what it means
for us, for you……….. to be loved. Amen.

I’m feel pretty, o so pretty

Last night, K and I, after watching a riveting junior olympics gymnastic championship at Madison Square Garden, met up with seminary friends at Marie’s Crisis. My favorite part of the evening was, right before we left, I noticed two young women moving in to have a conversation with us. I don’t know exactly what was said but I did happen to see the look on their faces when they discovered they were talking to a group of soon-to-be priests. (Look 1 was a polite huh?). Gay soon-to-be priests. (Look 2 was a tad more confused). And Episcopalians. (Look 3 was priceless as I think, I THINK, that’s what threw them off the most).

I have a feeling that if they discovered there was a married Lutheran right next to them, their minds would have been completely blown.

Election Predictions

Two days ago, at lunch I sat with a group of my fellow classmates in the refectory. We chatted, joked, gossiped, and did everything that people expect Seminarians to do (we even freaked out the folks using our conference center when we sung grace). Near the end of lunch, a distinguished professor, a giant in his field, came and joined us. He seemed to know me even though I have yet to take any of his classes. The conversation began with pleasantries but soon moved to heavier topics. Pretty soon, we were guessing who would be the next presiding bishop of the Episcopal church. As I cannot name ONE current bishop of their church, I kept my mouth shut. I did learn, however, that the current presiding bishop will be serving a 9 year term (nine!) and there was even talk, amongst our group of eight, on how to make her an archbishop (we all voted and said she should be one). I sat there, enjoying my coffee and cookies, and when the conversation moved to the ELCA (because they are thoughtful and wanted to include me), I threw in my two cents and even proposed a candidate for the next bishop of the Metro-New York Synod. I felt very distinguished and informed. Back pats for everyone.

When I was done, my young friend who was sitting next to me leaned over and informed me that she really wasn’t that interested in the conversation. Instead, she was care more about who would win The Bachelor. As I am also currently engrossed in it (what can I say – Courtney is my favorite and Ben is pretty terrible), we then proceeded to talk about it, loudly. In a matter of moments, the entire table stopped talking and turned to listen to what we said. Even the distinguished professor chimed in (though he admitted not knowing what the show was). I think I have finally discovered how, in the future, to derail any future discussion during an assembly of clergy: just bring up bad reality tv.

What if I don’t buy into the captive church?

Big Signage For about a month now, there has been a blog post brewing in my brain. Every time I set down to write it, nothing really comes out. But the post is there, lurking. I find myself walking my dog and thinking about it. Every once in awhile, my thoughts return to it. And when I’m standing in worship at my field site, my home church, or my seminary, the post comes back to life.

But I still haven’t figured out what to say about it.

The thoughts started bubbling after reading about the white middle class captivity of the ELCA. I buy a lot of what Rev. Clint said – whenever I leave New York City and enter an ELCA church, I’m always aware of how brown I am. That doesn’t surprise me nor shock me. I honestly think that you could probably argue that the ELCA is still heavily tied to its immigrant roots, still heavily American but not entirely (or what not). My not being a cradle Lutheran and spending most of my time experiencing the urban version of Lutheranism probably taints my view quite a bit. And it probably doesn’t help that I’m Hispanic.

My issue with this kind of thinking isn’t that it’s false. I think its very valid. Asking the question why the ELCA is middle class & white and asking the question how to get that to change – those are good questions. And being honest with our own personal stake in the ELCA being the way it is, that’s great too. In fact, wherever I end up is probably not going to look a lot like me. And I’m use to that. But I’ve been wondering – if we keep saying that the church is too white, too middle class, too this or too that – what does that say about the members of our church who aren’t white and who are poor? And what do we do about the members of our denomination who claim that identity and say “hey, I don’t buy into that?”

I don’t know – maybe no one will say that. But I’ve been thinking about it. There’s something very good about the corporate body saying “oh hey, we’re too much like this. We need to change.” I’m down with that. But there is a part of me that doesn’t mind thinking “well, that’s not me.” So what’s the trick then? To be honest about who we are as an organization but also be open enough so that all minority groups can lay a claim to it, own it, and say that the ELCA is me and then some? Or is this a tad too personal and I’m trying too hard to stick out? I don’t know.

But if we’re really trying to get all sorts of groups to buy into what it means to be in the ELCA (or the Church, church, Christianity, etc) – how do we mean it? That I haven’t figured out.

I know what the Metro-New York Synod has been doing to try and change that feeling. I know we have lots of assistants to the bishops that are minorities. That’s good, to a degree. And I think there’s something valuable of having someone that “looks like me” in a position of hierarchical power. But if you’re part of a synod that also says its going to close 50 churches..well….

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But I’m slowly drawing into it the question I’ve had about what it means to buy into the ELCA. In fact, that term, “buy in,” is probably becoming some sort of rallying point for my thoughts and there’s probably some dangerous theological problems with just using the term “buy in.” But well, hey, I’ve never been a fan of using the term “loyalty” (as in, there is no denominational loyalty anymore) that I keep hearing too.

I wonder if any of this kind of thinking will lead anywhere.