Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Of Church Mice Unseen

Sunday, September 29, 2014
Sermon by Katie Mulligan & Jeffri Christopher

A quick note that Plainsboro is the church I joined when I went to seminary. I came under their care halfway through my ordination process, in the middle of my divorce. They loved me. They loved my children. They loved my ex-husband. It is a good church, with good people.

Scripture Readings: 

I bring you greetings this morning from a congregation that resides in the in-between spaces. We do not have a building or an office. We do not have our own elders and deacons and sessions and committees. Rather, we make our home in many buildings; we borrow the church vans; we share office space and cadge off your internet service. In the late afternoon hours on Sundays we sneak into the kitchens of 3 churches. We eat leftovers you so obligingly leave for us from coffee hour or a church dinner. We are the church mice of your congregations.  On Sunday mornings we may be hard to find in the midst of all the people, joyful noise, the lights, and the hustle. But after the people of God go home, and the building empties of light and sound, our students join together in this sanctuary or that fellowship hall, and we make ourselves at home. You might only know we were there because of the mouse droppings: the half-empty soda can, the broken chair, or the copy machine left on all night.

We are a congregation of youth and young adults ranging from 4th grade through people in their 20s and 30s or so. We include their families and a few older adults who have discovered newfound spirit and life at the margins of their churches.

We’ve been calling it a Ministry of Many, and we are a collaboration of several churches working to provide a space for youth and young adults to minister to one another, strengthen their faith, and return to their home congregations with a vision for how they belong in the family of God. I work primarily with Trenton Area Campus Ministry and Ewing, Covenant, and Lawrence Road Presbyterian Churches. West Trenton and Plainsboro support us in various ways with students like Jeffri, meals for our college students, funding for our ministries, and your prayers. We especially covet your prayers.

For the last year, Jeffri has been participating regularly in a youth ministry called L.O.G., which stands for Love Of God. She has been a student leader, inviting others to come to our retreats, working with our student team to plan three retreats for other high school students, and joining us for service work

Friday, September 20, 2013

What Is That To You?

It has been a very full couple of weeks since I returned from all of my summer adventures. My to-do list is pages long. My programs, connections, relationships, and meetings are all back in full school year swing. I'll be running hard until mid-December, when blessedly the birth of our Savior coincides with school breaks and the Christmas Culture War. I will be conveniently lost in most people's shuffle.

In the meantime, I am up and down and all around, never sure if I'm coming or going, switching between age groups and cultural groups, changing clothes three times a day to accommodate worship, relay races, formal meetings, and pizza hangouts.

This kind of ministry, with this kind of rhythm, is sometimes like gorging oneself at a smorgasbord. Every emotion known to humans is on the table: joy, grief, foolishness, cynicism, satisfaction, rage, and more. Sometimes it's my emotions, sometimes it's you all's, but we are connected and I feel it.

I was talking about all this with a colleague today, saying, "If it wasn't for _______, I would be free." Fill in the blank with whatever you want. Free to do what, I'm not sure exactly. But his response set me back: "You are already free."

It could have been trite, but it wasn't. I forget this is my Truth. I forget that I am free in Christ. The trick is remembering to live as if this is true.

When Peter saw [the beloved disciple], he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’  ~John 21:21-22

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Shift in Posture

Sunday, September 1, 2013
sermon by Katie Mulligan
preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church

"I would like us to do something unprecedented: to create ourselves
without finding it necessary to create an enemy."

~James Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption, (204).

Scriptures Readings:
Jeremiah 2:4-13

Our scripture this morning is a pair of tough passages. Since I preach here so rarely, I had hoped for something light and sweet—maybe a passage about love—love is patient, love is kind. Maybe a piece of the Song of Solomon, and I could preach a barely restrained, passionate sermon on the delights of a lover’s body. Maybe something hopeful about being a new creation if we are in Christ. Or something absurd from Leviticus, like whether or not rabbits actually chew their cud and therefore whether or not we are permitted to eat them.

But in a week that saw the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech, the cultural appropriation of Miley Cyrus, and serious consideration as to whether our country will go to war against brown bodies in Syria, I turned to the lectionary and found these two scriptures:

From Jeremiah, which Sandra just read: my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

And now this from Luke: On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

These two passages come around every three years in our lectionary, that three year cycle of scripture that many of us preachers use. I was tempted to skip them this year and talk about rabbits. Yes I was, because listen. I was just on vacation in California, on the beach, picking up sand dollars by the dozen. I was just with my family, visiting an ostrich farm, taking pictures of my son feeding those giant birds. I’ve got school starting and youth groups starting, and college kids are back, and about sixty-seven urgent emails that need responding too, no matter that I am jet lagged and travel weary. I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum, pray hold me excused, I cannot preach on these passages. Do you get me?

But my mind stuck on this: “My people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
In the midst of my weariness I see that I have myself forsaken living water, and carved out cracked cisterns that hold no water. The spiritual malaise that plagues me (and I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling this) reminds me that I ignore these passages at my own peril. If there is one message that unifies the gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts it is this: the measure of a community’s righteousness is how we treat the marginalized folks: those who are poor; those with disabilities; women; children; those who are cut off from community. In our own context, a measure of our community is how we treat people of color.

A few months ago I pulled into the parking lot with Covenant’s van after a youth event. We had been roller skating or mini-golfing or some such, and it was late in the afternoon. Night was beginning to fall, but there was enough light left to see by. I had dropped off the last of our youth who needed rides home, and now it was time for me to go home and rest. As I walked to my own car to drive home, I noticed a group of 8 children huddled in the parking lot. They were neighborhood children, black and beautiful. I had never met them before. As I watched, they moved together as a group in one motion, occasionally screaming and jumping. I wondered what they were up to, because this wasn’t random play. I walked over to them, feeling somewhat protective of the church, feeling ashamed at my automatic dis-ease around the children. They looked up at me and said, “Hey lady! We found a baby rabbit!”

They were circled around this little creature, trying to catch it, and one of them said, “We’re trying to get it out of the parking lot, so it won’t get run over.” I had leftover twizzlers from our youth event and offered them up. One of the children pulled me aside and said, “Hey, what church is this?” I told them the name of the church and invited them to come again, but what I wanted to say is this: “You came to play here, and I gave you twizzlers. It’s your church now.” I wonder often if we’ll ever see those children here again. I reflect often on the racism of my internal response to meeting them in our parking lot.

Not long after that, I was dropping off a permission slip at a student’s home in Trenton. I didn’t know exactly where her place was, so I parked the van and walked around. I asked a couple of children if they knew where my student lived. They looked at me and said, “Why? Did she run away?” They couldn’t figure out any other reason a white woman would be walking around that part of town, so they assumed I was a social worker.

Ewing and Covenant are pretty diverse churches in a lot of ways. We have people coming from all over New Jersey and parts of Pennsylvania to be here. We have wealthy families and we’ve got poor families. We’ve got straight folks and queer folks. I’ve benefitted directly from that, haven’t I? In 2010, about a year after my ordination, I decided to come out and live as an openly queer woman. I wondered, as I publicly invited people to know me in this way, if I would ever find a church call—who was going to hire a queer, divorced, woman, single mother pastor? And then I found Ewing and Covenant, and it’s been a joy to work with two congregations who openly embrace and celebrate lgbtq people and their partners and their children.

We are two very diverse congregations. And we have work to do around racial and ethnic diversity. This is evident in our discomfort in having conversations about race, and the way we are often willing to redirect the conversation away from race to almost anything else. This is evident in the racial and ethnic makeup of our congregations. We are mostly white churches in areas that are increasingly home to people of color. We are Presbyterians, and nationwide our denomination is 92% white in a country that is most certainly not.

I keep going back to the question asked of me in our parking lot by one of our neighborhood children: “What church is this?” There was so much to that question—and I think it’s one we need to grapple with. I think we need to ask ourselves carefully, “Whose church is this?” And if the answer is anything except “God’s church,” then I think we have built a leaky cistern and forsaken living water. It's easy to forget that when I have the keys to the church--it's easy to think that controlling access to a space gives us ownership. But this is God's church, and we are guests.

A few years ago I preached on these same passages. Because of the timing of the lectionary, the date was August 29th. The day before my sermon Glenn Beck had stood on the steps of Lincoln Memorial and preached a sermon to mostly white people about taking the inheritence left to us by the Rockefellers and the Carnegies and building on that. He left out the part of how this country was built on the backs of enslaved people of color. He suggested that segregation and Jim Crow were over. But folks, we can see that isn’t true, just by looking at the two elementary schools that border our church. I challenge you to go out after church today and walk by those two schools. The Ewing school is beautiful and new and shiny, with a gorgeous playground. The Trenton school is old, full of weeds, sad looking. I can’t believe we have children in there. Go look, and you’ll see. We are not done with segregation.

So the day after Glenn Beck’s appropriation of Dr. King’s I Have A Dream Speech, this is what I preached, slightly updated for today:

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s address at the 1963 March on Washington: “I Have a Dream”. Nearly five years after that address, Dr. King was dead, assassinated on April 4, 1968 while standing on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee. He was planning to lead a protest march with striking garbage workers. (A brief bio here)

As a black man pushing against injustice, even in non-violent ways, Dr. King was subject to arrest and assault, endless attacks on his character, and his home was bombed. And yet he persevered, daring to speak publicly, openly, loudly, what so many cried out in their hearts. He pulled together a broad coalition of people, men and women, straight and gay, black and not black, rich and poor. At the age of 35 he won the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest man ever to do so.

On August 28, 1963, Dr. King went to Washington DC, to the Lincoln Memorial. He stood on the steps and addressed a crowd of 250,000 people; 200,000 black folk and 50,000 white folk. Clergy of every faith, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Joan Baez. He spoke in the same place where Marian Anderson had sung in 1939. Marian Anderson, a contralto singer, celebrated throughout the world. Marian Anderson, a black woman, refused permission to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution. So with the help of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she sang at the Lincoln Memorial to 75,000 people on Easter Sunday in 1939. It was here that Martin Luther King said “I have a dream.”

Dr. King spoke on the 8th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year old black child who supposedly whistled at a white woman. The suspects in the case were acquitted by an all white jury, and even though the murder case was reopened in 2004, nearly 50 years after Emmett Till’s murder, the perpetrators were long since dead. Neither of their obituaries mentioned Emmett Till. He died in Mississippi, and his mother brought his body back to Illinois where she insisted on an open casket, even though his body was badly mangled. She wanted the world to see what had been done to her boy—her boy child who was the same age as my own son. He had been beaten, his eye gouged out while he was still alive. And then he was shot through the head and thrown in the river with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck. She wanted people to know. Emmett Louis Till, born July 25, 1941 and murdered on August 28, 1955 at the age of 14 by white men who thought a young black man should not be allowed to whistle, or look at a white woman, this child’s death was not to be forgotten, his story was not to be silenced. On the 8th anniversary of Emmett Till’s death, Dr. King spoke of a dream.

After all the brutalities of centuries of slavery. After 100 years of segregation and disillusionment, broken promises, and backbreaking, endless labor exchanged for poverty and early death, Dr. King stood on the steps of Lincoln Memorial, where Marian Anderson had refused to be silenced. On the anniversary of Emmett Till’s death, Dr. King pulled together his 250,000 people marching for jobs and fair treatment—things they had no reason to hope white folk would ever grant. And despite the pain and anguish of a people long denied justice, Dr. King spoke these words:

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.
And then Dr. King issued an invitation. Despite all he had reason to fear and suspect about white folk—and despite having an endless stream of examples proving his fears correct, Dr. King offered these words.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
Friends, we were invited to the table by people who had no reason to invite us. We were invited to the table by people we actively discriminate(d) against. We were invited to the table by friends and relatives of those who died at the hands of white folk. And the invitation was offered with heartfelt joy and hope, with the certainty and faith that if we could all join together around justice for all that we might come to love one another fully, to walk beside one another in all things. Dr. King offered up his dream that Emmett Till did not die in vain, that Marian Anderson’s boldness and courage would be honored. He offered to white folk everywhere a chance to regain our humanity and humility—not to wipe the slate clean, but a chance to build toward the future together, grieving together at the past and celebrating the love we might share as people of all races and creeds.
Well, that was three years ago I preached that. And some of the folks called a meeting with me and suggested I move off the social justice kick. But the next week was the Lost Coin. And the week after was Lazarus at the Gates. Week after week of the Gospel of Luke. Week after week of being called to account for injustice. When it came time for Lazarus, I read the scripture and replaced my sermon with 10 minutes of silence. I didn’t know how to preach on injustice without preaching about injustice. I still don’t.

We have an opportunity here, especially at Covenant, where we make our spiritual home in the midst of people of color. We have an opportunity to approach the church and the Lord’s table as guests instead of owners. We have an opportunity to step back and take the lower seat, to listen, to relinquish power, to welcome those who are marginalized to lead us forward. It’s not an opportunity very many Presbyterian churches are afforded. It’s not an opportunity very many white people are given. I spent yesterday morning at a women’s retreat at the AME church across town, and I was acutely aware of the generosity of their invitation.

What would it look like if we engaged in anti-racist work here as guests instead of owners? What would it look like if we gave this house back over to God? What if we took our fears, our racism, our worries, and doused them with living water? What would it look like if we threw open the doors and welcomed the other guests, and took our seat at the foot of the table? What would it look like for us to be a church OF the neighborhood instead of a church FOR the neighborhood?

I bet it would be mighty uncomfortable. I bet it would feel like being a guest in our own house. I bet it would feel like the time my husband and I sold our house and leased it back from the new owners for two months. I bet we might not like it a lot. And I bet we would grow and profit from our willingness to let go our clenched fingers on the doorknobs of the church.

Will you indulge me one last story? I am a Wendell Berry fan—he writes stories about a fictional community in Kentucky, farming in the old days, days lived by the rhythms of the rivers and the seasons. He wrote about a farmer named Jack, who back in the day grew his farm to the point that he needed a hired hand. So he hired a black man named Will. Sit back a minute and listen to this story—listen to the way a master-servant relationship can destroy even the best of intentions. Think about the way in which we engage the community around us.

<Google books has a preview of The Memory of Old Jack. The excerpt I'm referring to begins on page 58. I am excerpting a short piece from that chapter, but I encourage you to read pages 58 through 64 in this version. If you are looking in a different edition, this is from the chapter called "Will Wells.">
There grew between the two of them a relationship--a sort of brotherhood--of an intensity that Jack would know only that once. Though they assumed the inevitable economic roles of master and servant, they were from the beginning equals before the work. It would not have occurred to Jack to ask another man to do a job that he would not do himself, or to hold back while another man took the hardest part, or to rest while another man worked. That was his principle and his pride. Though Will worked for Jack's benefit, he did not work for his convenience. That they worked side by side, that they knew the same hardships of labor and weather, made a ground of respect between them, and a liking. They teamed together as if they had been born twins... 
Jack and Will worked together for two years, putting the old neglected farm to rights. And Will had settled into a little house with his family on Jack's property. 
Jack saw what Will had done, what a pleasant, frugal order he had made it, and he admired it. But he found to his surprise that it troubled him too. In some strange way he feared it. He feared the claim it made on his respect and his feelings. For it was his farm; his was the permanent relation there; it was his name on the deed and the mortgage, and his life whose continuance in that place the law anticipated and protected. The small domestic order that Will Wells had made there was almost accidental, a passing fact like a day or a season, its impermanence full of sorrow that Jack recognized by an impulse of sympathy that was deep, for he liked the man. And yet he strove against it because he saw in it the threat of an anguish that would be his own. 
This difference between them, though for a while it did not have to be acknowledged, was too great. There came between them in the third year, not an open break, never a disagreement that either of them could have stated, but a disharmony, a withdrawal from the center of their agreement. There began to be a roughening, an imprecision, in their teamwork that made them conscious and resentful of their dependence on each other... 
One afternoon, as they worked in this discordant state, the wagon got stuck. Jack lost his temper: 
...even in his fury [Jack] pauses. And then he looks at Will.
"Go get a shovel!"
No such words have ever passed between them. Will recognizes the challenge and the accusation in them, but he turns and hurries off toward the barn...
A struggle breaks out between the two men, finally surfacing the rage between them created by their unequal positions as owner and servant. Will gets in a good punch and knocks Jack over. As Jack lies on the ground, Will walks away. 
Everything is finished between them, [Jack] knows, for the reason that nothing was ever really started. A vast difference lived between them even while they worked together--the difference between hopeful and hopeless work...And it is final. Their anger was the end of words. Between them now is a silence against which they have no speech. They cannot be reconciled, for no real peace ever existed between them, and they are far off in history from the terms and the vision of such a peace.
Was that too abstract? Can you see? Can you see what it is to work as master and servant? As Owner and Guest? Do we want that for Covenant? For Ewing? As we come into this fall, readying ourselves to do work in the community and in our church, do we wish to claim ownership of this church? Are we really willing to sacrifice an equitable relationship with our neighbors, who are mostly black, by saying, “This church is ours and we are willing to serve you?” Or might we find another way, by shifting our understanding of whose church this is? Might we sign over the deed to God, remind ourselves that we too are guests, and invite our neighbors to join us at table as we take the lowest seat we could find?

What might that look like? What shifts in your thinking might you have to make when you are talking with people of color? What space might you need to make for others? What structures might we need to put into place to guard ourselves against the automatic, barely conscious racism we bring to the table with us? When I see a threat in black children in the parking lot as they go about rescuing a baby bunny, what do I need to change about myself?

These are the questions our scriptures brought to mind today for me. I offer them to you for digestion, knowing they are not comfortable questions. I offer them because our youth group is changing, becoming more diverse, and I need our church to be involved with their families. I offer these questions because our children are watching us, imitating us, learning how to be in this world based on our moves. And our children know our hearts and internal thoughts almost as well as Jesus does. They need to see us struggle with race and ethnicity and culture as much as we have already struggled with poverty and sexuality. They need to see us willing to be uncomfortable with uncomfortable questions. This, then, is our challenge. What will we do with it, I wonder?

your absence has gone through me
like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
~W.S. Merwin