Belonging, Beloved Community, Matthew 17, Rejection, Transfiguration of the Lord

Beloved Community

Outside is gloomy and raining today. Although I love rain — drizzly rain, soft rain, even driving earth altering rain — I can do without the gloomy part. Still, when there is gloominess around me, it invites me into contemplative moments. Those reflective kind of moments when transfiguration happens. And so today, the rainy drizzle leads my reflection to two places — to the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus and to the story of Yonah, who sings “Stranger to the Rain” in the theatrical production of “Children of Eden.”

This, in fact, is the Sunday of the Transfiguration of the Lord. In remembering the story that is told by all four Gospel writers and referred to by Apostles Peter and Paul, I always recall the response of three of Jesus’s disciples — Peter, James and John. On that high mountain with Jesus, they experienced a high moment when Jesus was transfigured. I always wonder what their soul emotions might have been when they witnessed Jesus glowing with a dazzling, holy light. Might they have felt fear, awe, exhilaration? Could they have felt that in that light, something holy rose up in them?

However they might have felt inside, they must have felt some sort of draw, something beckoning them to stay there on the holy mountain. They wanted to stay in the radiance of these moments with Jesus and with the Prophets Elijah and Elisha. They may have just wanted to be together in that beloved community.

From Chapter 17 of Matthew’s Gospel . . .

17 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Whatever the reason — being together in community, taking in the bright radiance, or being immersed in the miracle — the disciples wanted to stay on the mountain and to be in that holy moment together. Isn’t what all of us want? Don’t we all long for holy moments? Don’t we all want to be a part of beloved community?

Throughout this pandemic’s long season of isolation, many people are experiencing the loss of community, the loss of being together with the people they care about. I have heard stories of this kind of loss from countless people, and usually they are also mourning being away from their places of worship. They mourn for the loss of being together and for the loss of their holy places. Like the disciples, it seems that being together and being in holy places is what they need.

I have thought about those needs, the attraction of them, the longing for them. My conclusion is that these are places where people are accepted, unconditionally. We want to be with people who do not ostracize us, in worship places that never name us unworthy or turn us away. Being ostracized always hurts no matter the reason. But people are ostracized every day — for their race, their religion, their gender identity. People are ostracized every day for simply being who they are, because “who they are” does not fit in to someone’s world of acceptable people. People ostracizing other people has been a shameful reality through the ages.

I have been ostracized many times in my life, for many reasons. The idea of being ostracized brings to mind one of my favorite musicals, “Children of Eden.” Act 2 begins with the story of Noah and his sons preparing the ark before the great flood. It seems God is about to ostracize all the earth’s people except Noah, his family and their gathering of animals. But Noah’s story has another arc, the story of his youngest son, Japheth and his future bride, Yonah.

Because of the imminent flood, Japheth is on a deadline to find a partner to bring on the arc. Japheth doesn’t want his father to choose for him, because he is already in love with someone. He announces he will bring his future bride to dinner. Noah and the family eagerly prepare to meet Yonah, but Yonah is not the kind of woman they expected.

Japheth tries to bring his true love Yonah, the servant girl, to the table, but Noah stops him. Yonah bears the mark of Cain and this causes a furor. Yonah is not one of them. She is of another race. Japheth is furious that his family rejected her and storms off just as animals start appearing on their way to the ark.

After every person and animal is onboard the ark, Noah sees Yonah standing alone and apologizes that he can not take her with him. Left alone, the “black girl bearing the mark of Cain” feels the devastating pain of rejection. Filled with emotion and overcome with sadness, Yonah sings “Stranger To The Rain,” singing of her pain of being ostracized, how she is accustomed to being rejected, but she also sings of her resilience to bear it. “I’ve learned not to tremble when I hear the thunder roar. I don’t curse what I can’t change . . . I won’t say I’ve never felt the pain, but I am not a stranger to the rain.”

I find priceless wisdom in the words Yonah sings.

Shed no tears for me
There’ll be rain enough today
I’m wishing you godspeed
As I wave you on your way
This won’t be the first time
I’ve stayed behind to face
The bitter consequences
Of an ancient fall from grace
I’m a daughter of the race of Cain
I am not a stranger to the rain
 
Orphan in the storm
That’s a role I’ve played before
I’ve learned not to tremble
When I hear the thunder roar
I don’t curse what I can’t change
I just play the hand I’m dealt
When they lighten up the rations
I tighten up my belt
I won’t say I’ve never felt the pain
But I am not a stranger to the rain
 
And for the boy who’s given me the sweetest love I’ve known
I wish for him another love so he won’t be alone
Because I am bound to walk among the wounded and the slain
And when the storm comes crashing on the plain
I will dance before the lightning to music sacred and profane
 
Oh, shed no tears for me
Light no candle for my sake
This journey I’ll be making
Is one we all must make
Shoulder to the wind
I’ll turn my face into the spray
And when the heavens open
Let the drops fall where they may
If they finally wash away the stain
From a daughter of the race of Cain
I am not a stranger to the rain
 
Let it rain

She describes herself as an “orphan in the storm.” And the truth is that, at times, I have described myself as an orphan. It is a feeling of being alone, being put out and rejected, being told you do not belong, being ostracized. I hate that feeling, but I love the feeling of being “one” with my community and “one” with God — Beloved Community.

Here is an audio of “Stranger to the Rain.” I wonder if you can imagine Yonah standing alone, Noah looking at her with guilt. She looks at Japheth who stands far away, sometimes turning away from her, for looking at her is too painful.

Justice, LGBTQ, Love, Uncategorized

Aren’t you tired of being mean?

IMG_5860August 27, 2017, marked an action of sacred change among the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. I was proud of the church I have recently become a part of, not only because of our adoption of a policy that ensures the full acceptance of LGBTQ parsons, but also because of the thoughtful and intentional process that resulted in the decision for inclusion, acceptance, unity, justice and love.

The church leadership spent a great deal of time and energy in a discerning process that led to this recommendation:

“The Church Council and Board of Deacons of the First Baptist Church of Christ support the full inclusion in the life of the church of all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. In light of this statement, the Church Council and Board of Deacons recommend thar full inclusion encompasses same-sex marriage in our church facilities.”

The leadership then planned a series of congregational meetings so that every member felt respected and heard. I was present at two of three community meetings that included review of Scripture, open dialogue, listening to one another, respecting diverse views, eating together, singing and praying. Following those meetings, the motion was brought to the church in business conference. The motion passed with 73% of the congregation voting to approve. An amazing phenomenon for a Georgia Baptist church!

I could not help but think that this result was much more than a single vote. It was inclusion and acceptance. It was a proclamation of justice and unity among people of faith. It was a community of God’s people seeking to live out Christ’s commandment to love one another.

This week I read about the creation of a newly penned doctrinal statement in which a coalition of conservative evangelical leaders laid out their beliefs on human sexuality, including opposition to same-sex marriage and fluid gender identity.

The signers of the Nashville Statement say that it is their response to an “increasingly post-Christian, Western culture that thinks it can change God’s design for humans.” Since it was released Tuesday morning, the Nashville Statement has received praise for its clarity. It has also been denounced as very hurtful and harmful to LGBTQ people.

I read the Preamble and pondered each of the fourteen Articles of the statement. With sadness, I looked through the list of hundreds of signers, finding the names of leaders from all of our original Southern Baptist seminaries. I remembered the loss of our seminaries and the painful times that our beloved seminary professors endured. Most of all, I cringed at the statement’s language. I thought about my many LGBTQ friends and recalled their Christian faith. And I was very troubled, frightened by the many ways that hate can flourish in our world.

I then read an article in response to the Nashville Statement by my long time friend, Nancy Hastings Sehested, published in the latest edition of prayer and politiks.org. I can come up with no words that are as fully Christian as Nancy’s thoughts in this insightful article. I print it here in its entirety.

Tired of Being Mean: A Response to the “Nashville Statement”

It was the last night of Vacation Bible School at the Sweet Fellowship Baptist Church. All week our five year olds rehearsed the story of Pharaoh and Moses to dramatize for their parents. All four boys wanted to be mean ‘ole Pharaoh.

With the church pews filled with family, the performance commenced. Our wee Pharaoh sat on his throne holding his plastic sword. Then little Moses walked up to him with his shepherd’s crook and said, “Pharaoh, stop hurting my people. Let my people go.”

Our Pharaoh wielded his sword in the air and said, “Never, never, never!”

Moses walked away and then returned with the same words. “Pharaoh, stop hurting my people. Let my people go!”

Pharaoh said nothing. I thought he’d forgotten his lines. I scooted toward him and whispered, “Say ‘Never, Never, Never’.”

Nothing.

Then our little Pharaoh jumped down from his throne, threw down his sword and said, “I’m tired of being mean. I don’t want to be mean anymore!”

Imagine meanness in the world ending due to fatigue.

It seems that we are simply not tired enough. But surely we are close to exhaustion sorting out who needs our meanness now. Just flipping through the Bible to find which people to hate is draining. These days it’s hard to find a Midianite to kill. Stoning incorrigible teenagers to death in the town square could leave few maturing into adulthood. Abominating people who are “sowers of discord” or have “haughty eyes” could unleash a bloodbath in our churches.

Aren’t we worn out yet from using the Bible as a bully stick for meanness?

The “Nashville Statement” is a clear indication that some religious Pharaohs are not tired of wielding their sword of hatred. But the rest of us are tired of one more abusive word against gay, lesbian and transgendered people in the name of religion. Who’s next? Women ministers? Oh, wait. That’s a mean streak that started decades ago.

Signers of the statement, here is a word to you: Don’t you have something better to do? Feed the hungry? Visit the prisoners? Shelter the homeless from the hurricane? Give the thirsty some clean drinking water? Stop mad men from starting a nuclear war? If you are afraid of the world changing too fast or becoming too complex for you, then say, “I’m afraid.” Then be assured that God is with you in this changing world. But don’t use your own selective Bible verses to hurt beloved people of God. We’re tired of your meanness. God is too.


– Rev. Nancy Hastings Sehested

Co-Pastor, Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, North Carolina

August 31, 2017

 

My final words for this day’s blog post are simple:

Amen.

Thank you, Nancy.

May God bless the extravagant love shown by Macon’s First Baptist Church of Christ.

And may we all grow tired of being mean!