TO THE SPIRIT by
Rev. Chris Glaser
Today, listening to a preacher who takes too lightly her or his vital office is like hearing fingernails screeching across a chalkboard. You who will proclaim the Gospel to congregations and commmunities and exegete its texts and explain its history in classrooms need to know that, in doing so, you are putting flesh to bones, calling corpses from tombs, giving life to communities. What you do is vital. Vital, as in life-giving and death-challenging, confronting those who might rather “rest in peace.” Medicine may be about saving lives and the military may be about protecting lives but ministry is about giving life. We who are so called must “prophesy to the spirit,” as we read in Ezekiel.
The passage from Ezekiel speaks to us because the storyteller is speaking to exiles. (In the storyteller’s time it was those who were exiled from their homeland by the Babylonian empire.) “Can these bones live?” Can we live when exiled from our homes, from our home churches, from our hometowns? Our modern Babylon of a church and a country wants to keep us separated, segregated, isolated, alienated from one another as queer, as well as from one another as queer, African American, feminist, Arab, and the list goes on and on and on. If we dare see or dare say we have a common homeland, a common cause, we might occasion an uprising in which the dominance of Babylon is challenged, critiqued, reformed, and basically turned upside down as the early Christians did their own culture.
Even our queer community is Babylon when it tries to isolate and alienate gay men from lesbians and lesbians from gay men, and lesbians and gays from transgenders and bisexuals. Our queer community is Babylon when it tries to separate and segregate us by age, appearance, ability, color, culture, and class. Babylon’s weapon of mass destruction are the “isms” that divide us from one another, keep us from the table, taint our common bread and wine.
Then God said to us, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of God.” Not the words of God, the word of God. As students, we parse God’s word into words, concepts, systems. But these are dry bones that must be linked, enfleshed, embodied, and resuscitated in sinews and skin: the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth, once more. Scottish poet Edwin Muir, a John Knox biographer, wrote about John Calvin in a poem from his Collected Poems published posthumously in 1960:
“The Word made flesh made word again” slams the analytical vivisection or theological invisceration of the Incarnation.
Babylon is the cold empire built on “the abstract” human being, the fleshless skeleton, the exiled bone torn from other bones, torn from the Body Politic and the Body of Christ lest together the bones bring Babylon down. Then God said to us, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of God. Thus says the Sovereign God to these bones: I will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am Sovereign.” And it was so!
Then God said to us, “Prophesy to the breath.” You know of course that the Hebrew word ruah is the same for breath, and wind, and spirit, and the storyteller in Ezekiel does what Jesus did much later as the latter played on these words explaining “the Gospel in miniature” to Nicodemus about the wind and the Spirit blowing where it will.
Then God said to us, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Sovereign God: Come from the four winds, O breath—in Holy Communion language, come from the east and the west, the north and the south—and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” Now the Ezekiel storyteller has switched slightly the metaphor, from dried bones scattered in a valley to corpses awaiting resurrection. We can appropriate the metaphorical change by recalling those among us who have died in exile: those within our queer community who were executed in other countries or earlier eras, who were fatally bashed in our own country in our own time, who died of AIDS or simply died awaiting the promise of return, and those whose exile drove them to suicide, intentional or as a byproduct of addicting or self-destructive forms of escape.
Ezekiel envisions something like the final scene of Longtime Companion, when all of our longtime companions that we loved and helplessly watch die return to party with us. As one friend with AIDS reprimanded me when I once said the whole AIDS crisis made me want to die too—he said, “No, you’ve got to stay alive to tell the story.” So we prophesy to the Spirit of the past as well as the present and the future. We stand in their stead, keeping their Spirit alive, embodying their Spirit of resistance and defiance and reformation. We thus lift them up even as they lift up our own drooping hands and knees, “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” Together we face Babylon, church and culture permeated by heterosexism, transphobia, sexism, racism, classism, elitism—all the isms that come to mind that we must resist within Babylon even as we wrestle them within ourselves.
Then God says to us, “Mortal, these bones are the queer community. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Sovereign God: I am going to open your closets, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to your homeland. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” So we testify, we prophesy not only to the past and the present but to the future. You gathered here are a reminder that movements of the Spirit are not led by prophets of the past, but prophets of the future. Movements for justice are always led by succeeding generations—you, as well as those being born this very hour whom, we hope, will lead us into further truth, greater understanding about unnecessary divisions and presently veiled injustices.
Of course there’s a price to pay when we prophesy to the spirit. Jesus prophesied to the spirit of Lazarus, revitalizing his beloved friend, and, in the verses immediately following today’s text in the Gospel of John, religious leaders are plotting to take Jesus’ life because he gave life to Lazarus. The chief priest, the bishop, the stated clerk, the cardinal declare it’s better for one to die than for Babylon to die, than for the church to die, than for the nation to die. Scripture says, “He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John 11:51-52)—in other words, to gather into one the exiles, the children of God who have been exiled by an exclusivist antichrist Babylon of a church.
So as we put flesh to Christ’s Body, betrayed, denied, abandoned, beaten, crucified, hung out to dry in the hot Palestinian sun, dehydrated and asphyxiated, the breath, the Spirit, the wind, and the life wrung out of that body, we embody God’s Spirit just as our storyteller from Ezekiel said God told him, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
To paraphrase the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, “To set the mind on Babylon is death, to set the mind on ‘isms’ that divide us like chasms are cataclysmic to the life of the Spirit, which is life. But if Christ is truly in us as church, though dead through divisions of the body, these bones will live, this body will rise. As Jesus proclaimed the Gospel to Mary on his way to resurrect Lazarus, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
If Saint Patrick, whose feast day this is, had let the fact that as a youth he’d been exiled and enslaved in Ireland keep him from returning and proclaiming life to that country, this British native would not be heralded today as Ireland’s patron saint. So we, too, return to our spiritual communities proclaiming life, though they have exiled and enslaved us in the past. Though the power and privilege may be on their side, exile by its nature is mutually experienced and must be overcome as much for their sake as ours. We know that we work for their liberation as much as our own.
Ted Wardlaw, preacher at Central Presbyterian of Atlanta and a leader in the Covenant Network that opposes the antigay provision in the Presbyterian Book of Order, tells the story of an extremely eccentric woman he recognized attending a gathering at Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina. In their conversation, he discovered she regular attended events there, and when asked why she told him this story. As a young girl she had attended an event there during World War II. As the preacher for the morning ascended the pulpit, he was handed a note, and before his sermon announced to the congregation that World War II had ended. She told Ted, that in a world torn by conflicts and violence, she hoped each time a preacher ascended a pulpit that she might hear good news such as that.
take our roles seriously as proclaimers and teachers of spirituality,
we must prophesy to the Spirit that heals division and restores and
renews life. But God’s Word made flesh cannot simply become flesh made words
again. God’s Word must be Incarnate once more as exiles are returned
home to the Body of Christ, as we tell our own and hear other’s stories
of exile, and as together we live God’s Word in our world.
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
Two disciples together say this to each other. Our scripture does not say, one said it to the other. Luke writes to us latter day disciples, “They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’” They spoke as one, in unison, as if reading from a liturgy, as if two had become one.
That is spirituality. That is what spirituality is all about. All of our particularities, our differences, our edges, our boundaries, our isms—all melt in the presence of the eternal, the cosmic, God, love, justice—whatever word captures for us ultimate truth. It is our personal Ground Zero, where we encounter the fragility of our own lives and yet where we encounter the ultimate and eternal meaning of our unique existence. Our hearts burn within us as we discover the truth, the meaning, the context of our own lives and of life itself. And to do so with another—a friend, a lover, a fellow seminarian, a spiritual community, the queer community—is exquisite.
These two disciples who traveled to Emmaus are the dream of disciples throughout the ages; they have enjoyed a revelation that is the object of all spiritual quests. The eros of their hearts has been unleashed and ignited and they burn as one. It doesn’t matter who said what to whom, who said it first, whose idea it first was, who gets the credit for the observation, insight, or conclusion, or who should get footnoted. Personal or private ownership no longer matters. They own it together, this most holy communion.
What made it so?
What made their hearts burn as one as they spoke with this stranger? What prompted them to speak as one in affirmation of the experience?
No doubt you have had that experience. Soul friends. People with whom you’ve intimately and passionately connected, perhaps in lovemaking, more likely in justice-making or truth-seeking or prayer-making. Friends with whom we can finish one another’s sentences. What is our favorite phrase? Office supply store Staples has come up with the shopper’s favorite phrase as a tag line for their commercials, “Yeah, we’ve got that.” Our favorite phrase in connecting with people might be, “Yeah, I believe that.” Shared belief makes us one with people with whom we may have little else in common. It opens doors to a communion hardly thought possible by our privilege or lack thereof, by our race, by our class, by our age, by our ability, by our economic status, by our education, by our gender, by our sexuality.
How did the travelers to Emmaus get to the place where they could say in unison, “Yeah, we believe that.”
They had just come from their Ground Zero, the dying of all their hopes for their religion and their nation. The leader of their movement had been crucified by their oppressors at the instigation of their own religious and national leaders. Everybody in charge had conspired to kill their hopes and their dreams of redemption. Their General Conference had refused to change its antigay policies. Their Amendment A had been defeated in the presbyteries. Their bishop had refused to consider them for ordination. These are lesser hurts, to be sure, but the dashing of your dreams comes in many forms, and is no less devastating at the moment that it happens.
Disheartened, the travelers to Emmaus encounter a stranger who walks with them, Jesus in another form perhaps, because they cannot recognize him. Maybe this time Jesus is an African, or a woman, or on crutches, or an Arab. He asks them for their stories, and listens to their woes, the perfect host. In his book Reaching Out: Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Henri Nouwen described the movement from hostility to hospitality, through which the enemy (hostis) or stranger becomes the guest (hospes). One who offers true hospitality offers the space in which the guest is welcomed to tell her story. By telling her story in the presence of one who welcomes it, she is enabled to piece it together into a meaningful narrative. Thus the guest is better able to be “obedient” to her own story, that is, to be true to herself. So, long before the stranger and the two disciples sit down at table together, Jesus is already becoming the host.
Almost as disturbing to them, or so it seems, is the report of the women disciples, of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women who had aided and financed Jesus’ ministry, that they had found his tomb empty and been told by angels in dazzling clothes—just dazzling dahling—who said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (Luke 24:5). Did these travelers think with other disciples that this was an idle tale, that this was women “re-imagining God,” or questioning patriarchal religion, or daring to claim their own experience of the risen Christ?
Then it comes time for the stranger, for Jesus in another form, to offer his interpretation of the same events, his interpretation of the scriptures they commonly recognize as sacred texts. (Jesus doing exegesis—I just had to say that!) To prevent them from directly recognizing him, maybe he does not use the educated language of a rabbi, maybe he speaks in broken Aramaic, maybe he speaks in the dialect of the Nazareth ghetto. The travelers to Emmaus serve as good hosts as well, listening to him interpret their sacred law and prophets, prefacing it with, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
As Jesus tells his own story, is obedient to his own story, is true to himself, we might catch a clue about how we tell our own stories. Jesus talks about his suffering in the same breath as his glory. As a rabbinic story testifies, the Messiah to come is a wounded healer. We who minister in the Messiah’s name are wounded healers. We have a wound with a view. We have a view in our own suffering of how it connects to the human condition, the base line of all human experience. It hopefully sensitizes us to other people’s wounds. That’s why marginalized people make such good ministers. Healers of individuals that we call ministers and priests and healers of society that we call prophets and justice-seekers are motivated by their own wounds and the wounds of others.
Yet we also must model what healing looks like. We must also claim our glory as we claim our suffering and urge others to claim their glory as they claim their suffering. Suffering is not the end; it is the means, a way through, to the ultimate discovery of glory. “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” moans the spiritual truthfully, but also: nobody knows the glory I’ve seen. In essence, Jesus tells the disciples “standing still and looking sad,” as Luke reports, that trouble and glory go together, that glory is on the other side of trouble. Think of the trouble of coming out, and the glory on the other side of that. Think of the trouble of being marginalized, and the glory of the perspective that being an outsider brings. Think of the trouble of not belonging to the in group, and the glorious creativity that is possible. Suffering without a vision of glory, as so many people in our world experience, brings despair, anger, violence, ennui, death. But suffering with a vision of glory, of God’s reign, of God’s justice, of God’s love, of human potential, of cosmic expansiveness, brings hope, forgiveness, peace, energy, life.
The disciples traveling to Emmaus talking to an unrecognized Jesus are seminarians listening to an inspired professor or reading an insightful book. The disciples traveling to Emmaus talking to an unrecognized Jesus are queer seminarians gathering to listen to one another and to play with one another. The disciples traveling to Emmaus talking to an unrecognized Jesus are church members listening to a preacher who challenges them to be all they can be or who gather to listen to one another reflect on scriptures that encourage them to accept their belovedness. The disciples traveling to Emmaus talking to an unrecognized Jesus are the church and the culture being influenced and shaped and reformed and revolutionized by spiritual values revealed by each and every one of us who make up that church and culture, including the poor in whatever form of poverty they are in: economic, educational, civil, ecclesiastical, and so on. And Jesus is that professor, writer, preacher, scripture, value, and that “everyone,” including the marginalized, needed to help us understand what things mean, who God is, and who we are. The Body of Christ is no longer simply a first century young Palestinian Jewish male, but now that Body is every color, culture, condition, class, age, gender, ability, sexuality, of every era and nation.
The disciples traveling to Emmaus couldn’t get enough of this stranger walking with them, or perhaps they got enough to know this stranger’s basic human need of food and shelter. They invited the stranger to stay with them. He politely refuses, but they prevail upon him to stay. And suddenly, at table, the stranger is revealed to them not as their guest but as their host, blessing and breaking and offering them their own bread as his own body, and their eyes are opened and they recognize their hope alive again, their dream resurrected, even as he disappears.
I think of Babette’s Feast, and how the aromas and flavors of Babette’s cuisinary wizardry awakens an austere and embittered religious sect to the former glory of their spiritual communion. Or of Chocolat, wherein a chocolatier transforms a society rigidly adhering to its Lenten discipline that excludes both chocolate and Romas (gypsies) who have much to teach them of the joy of life. In fact, I feel a little like the cunning Babette or the mischievous chocolatier inserting this Easter story into our Lenten disciplines.
Yet what I have done is nothing compared to what you have done in gathering as transgender, bisexual, lesbian, and gay seminarians and their allies and friends together, not only during this season of Lent 2002, but during this dry and austere season in the church’s history which denies the gifts of God’s lavender people of the rainbow! By your gathering you have given us a foretaste of Easter, of Resurrection, of new life possible for our spiritual communities, of justice achievable for our queer sisters and brothers. You restore our hope and resurrect our dreams for our spiritual communities. By your theme of “Militating Isms,” of wrestling with and resisting the isms that divide us, you give hope that we can sit at table and speak as one, “Were not our hearts burning within us while a stranger talked with us on the road, while a stranger was opening the scriptures to us?”
Copyright © 2008 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit circulation with attribution of author, occasion, date and venue. Other rights reserved.
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