Gay, Jesus.

An Epiphany Reflection.

Kim Burrell recently made a media splash for a pretty angry speech (I’m quite selective as to what I call a sermon) that made pretty incendiary claims about the moral integrity of the LGBTQ community. Her speech caught national attention when she was conspicuously dis-invited to perform on The Ellen Show. The “Burrell incident” is gasoline to an ever blazing fire of the Christian stance on homosexuality.

My initial thought when hearing the news was, “Jesus! Here we go again.”

I am of the general opinion that we are currently in a very critical time where people are dying.

We are drowning in the blood of and the tears for the slain from the plague of violence in our land (Reports on the Ft. Lauderdale shooting flood my computer before I could even publish this piece).

People are dying from hatred.
And Poverty.
And sickness.
And sadness.
People are dying.

Confused, scared, and anxious souls wander into the church looking to hear something, anything, to believe in, to hope for, to live for.
Looking for something to get from one day to the next, one moment to the next because
life is so hard.
Times are so hard.

Confused, scared, and anxious souls are waiting with baited breath for the Church to open its mouth to say something, to offer something of clarity, or comfort, or consolation.
And when we open our mouth to speak, out sputters the same diatribe on homosexuality.

My initial thought when hearing the news was, “Jesus! Why in this critical moment is the debate on homosexuality the reason the Christian church is making headlines?”
Why is this what’s at the top of everyone’s Facebook and twitter feed?

My initial thought when hearing the news was, “Jesus! What the hell does it matter?”
In this time, in all that is going on in this country, in this world what does it matter what two grown consenting adults are doing in their bedrooms? Why would that be point of anyone’s sermonic moment right now?

But then I had an Epiphany.

This matters. Talking about sex matters.
Because people are dying.
We are dying from a lack of knowledge, a lack of insight, a lack of understanding about our bodies and our sexuality.
People are dying
From sickness as STD’s conquer communities like the plague.
From sadness as relationships crumble beneath the weight of adultery.
From a lack of safety as rape and child sexual abuse numbers continue to climb.
Talking about sex, it matters.

But the peculiar thing is that whenever we take on the task of discussing sexuality, we can only get as close as identifying homosexuality as a sin. And so often, that’s it.

Personally, I would want to trouble our hermeneutics or interpretation of the Bible’s discourse on sexual sin but if we are to take it at face value, there is a sexual sin to tag each and every one of us. The Bible says that:

Sex before marriage is a sin. Even if you’re married now, according to the Bible You are no more exempt from anyone else who is held accountable for sexual misconduct.

Adultery is a sin. Cheating on your mate, although common, is a damnable sin.

Divorce is a sin. According to our good Lord and savior, Divorce and remarriage is a form of adultery and sin in the eyes of God.

Our Lord says even looking upon another with lust is a sin.

And with his words, we are all guilty of sexual sin.

The interesting thing about the Bible is that it is all written in the same font. The few bits on homosexuality, contrary to popular opinion, are not bold, italicized, or underlined. It is all the same. And we are all guilty.
We all stand accused.
We pretend, when we walk into church, that we have magically become Ken and Barbie dolls, devoid of sex organs or Porn Hub accounts. But if we take the Bible’s discourse on sexuality seriously, even the holiest among stands before God as guilty as the woman caught in the act of adultery. I have always wondered if we know this to be true why do we only know how to identify the gay community as sinners?

But then I had an epiphany.

I realized that we do not know what to do with this sin. We do not know how to talk about, address, or face it. We need someone to carry the weight of it for us. We need someone to take our sin and shame from us.
We need someone to die again and again for us.
We need someone to be the scapegoat.
The lamb who is slain.
We need someone to be crucified for our sexual sins.

We have chosen the gay community to do that for us, to be that for us.

We have chosen them to carry our sins as their own. To suffer the shame and ridicule that we deserve.

And so we have chosen them to be our salvation.
And so we have chosen them to be Jesus for us.

And so on this day as we celebrate the Epiphany- the realization of that our Christ came among us.

I have had an epiphany.

I have had the realization that our Christ is yet among us.
Our savior is here.
Still suffering for us. Still crying for us. Still bleeding for us.
Still dying for us.
Our savior is here.

And our savior is Gay.

Nursing a Black Eye: A Call for Peace

When I was little my brother, three years my senior, gave me a black eye. My mother tells me that I was a very mean toddler, especially mean to my mild-mannered and gentle brother. If I cried, to soothe me, he would give me a rattle. I’d take the rattle and hit him with it and continue to cry. Then he’d start crying.

I, in fact, hit him all the time. I was quite a bully to him. My mother would urge him to defend himself, “don’t let her hit you, Justin. Hit her back.” He would hit me softly. Then I’d begin to cry. Then he’d start crying.

Until one day, he had had enough. I hit him per my usual. He turned around and punched me dead in my eye. I was stunned. Then I began to cry. He didn’t cry.

Nor did he get into trouble. Rather, my mother sat me down and said, “that’s what happens when you hit people.” It was enough for me. My days as a bully were over. I’ve never hit him or anyone ever since nursing that black eye.

Charlotte, NC and the nation is nursing a black eye this morning. After the excessive use of force on black citizens at the hand of the police, the excessive bullying of black people, black people began to hit back with rioting, looting, and destruction last night. Allow me to share with the city and with the nation the lesson my mother taught me so many years ago:

“that’s what happens when you hit people.”

That’s what happens when you bully a race.

I am in awe at the way that politicians, public figures, and especially pastors are decrying the violence that took place last night as if the protestors were the perpetrators of the current civil unrest. We have to stop this long and painful tradition of blaming the victim. We have to stop offering the people platitudes of peace and start telling the truth.

The truth is that the police are killing black people. Without reason. Without repercussion

The truth is that black people have had enough.

As an ordained minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I have dedicated my life to the radical peace that Jesus upheld. It is the same radical peace that has been championed by every faith leader from Apostle Paul to Martin Luther King, Jr. But it has not escaped my notice that Jesus, Paul, and King (yes, King) were all three violently killed by a state sanctioned execution in the middle of the streets just like every black man whose blood has been spilt at the hands of a police officer. That’s why when I see the pictures of Keith Lamont Scott, Terence Crutcher, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice I see Jesus.

They killed him.

They shot. him.

They crucified him.

They will keep shooting, crucifying black men until we as a nation make peace. Peace is the only solution.

But peace must begin where the problem begins.

Peace must begin by calling the police the perpetrators and not the victims.

Peace must begin by calling the black community who have retaliated in rage the victims and not the perpetrators.

Peace must begin with naming the use of excessive force sinful, not understandable.

Peace must begin with making fatal shooting illegal, not allowable.

Peace begins with naming the problem. The problem is not the rioters. The problem is the reason for the riot.

The problem is the lack of regulation of the police force.

The problem is state sanctioned executions in the middle of the street.

The problem is systemic racism that is as old as the nation itself.

If we want peace, we must begin there. And if we do not start now the city, the nation will be nursing much more than a black eye. Because so many grew up with two great proverbs in tensions:

the proverb of Jesus the Christ who said,

“when someone hits you, turn the other cheek.”

And the proverb of every black mother in America who said,

“If someone hits you. Hit them back.”

We must seek peace now because the time for marching is over. The time for hashtag memorials are over. Black people aren’t going to beg for our lives. We are going to do exactly what our mothers taught us to do. We are going to fight for them.

 

 

Verses of Singleness: A Completely Unhelpful and Mildly Trite but Totally Thoughtful Reflection on Singleness.

Genesis 2:18 – It is not good for man to be alone.

In Genesis, we are introduced to a God who creates all things. In chapter two, this God creates the first human, a dude named Adam, from the dust. This God breathes the breath of life in Adam. And this God watches pleasantly as Adam begins a very fulfilling job as an environmental scientist and farmer. But the text says that God looked upon Adam in worry and concern because Adam was alone a lot. In an effort to find Adam a companion, God made a whole bunch of creatures but the text states that no suitable partner was found (Gen. 2:20). Adam couldn’t find a suitable mate. So God put Adam to sleep and created Eve from his rib. And Adam was immediately smitten with her.

And that was that.

His lonely days as a single person were over.

He goes on with a normal life. Just like any typical person, he makes some poor choices but recovers from them. He experiences the joy of having children, the grief of losing a loved one when he buries his son Abel. He leads a generally fulfilling life and his legacy includes the whole human race and, most importantly, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Kudos for him.

He was single for all of what? 12 verses?

I am not sure how long that worked out in actual years but I suspect not long given how fast the plot picks up after he meets Eve.

And that’s exactly the problem with looking to the Bible for advice of navigating singleness. While this story of Adam and Eve is truly beautiful and we cherish it as a community of faith, it is definitely hard to relate to. And in general, the question of singleness in the Bible is a non-question. Generally speaking, mates, partners, companions are just there, finding each other is just the backstory. Adam meeting Eve is the prologue. The real story is inviting sin into the world by eating the forbidden fruit. Abraham meeting Sarah is the back story. The real story is how they produced an heir despite Sarah’s barreness Mary being betrothed to Joseph was the backstory. The real story was that God told her that despite her virginity, she would conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit (I really hope that was the best or most “divine” orgasm ever by the way).

The reality is that there aren’t a lot of single people walking around in the Bible. I mean there are. Some of the prophets were single. Ruth was single (look out for my reflection on how she navigated her singleness). Hell, Jesus was single. No, fuck Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and whatever nonsense the History Channel is saying these days. Jesus was single. There are tons of single people in the Bible but their singleness was not a major aspect of their lives, or at least the Biblical writers didn’t feel it significant enough to reflect upon.

But presently, the reality for so many of God’s people is the same problem Adam had, a suitable mate has not been found.

Don’t get me wrong, people find mates. People couple up. People get married. People have children. People mate.

But the decline in marriage suggests

But the rise in the divorce rate suggests

The shockingly high numbers of survivors of domestic/ intimate/ relationship violence and abuse suggests

That we have a “suitable mate” problem as a community of faith.

And Genesis 2 tells us that this is a problem that God is deeply concerned about. This is a problem that God feels very compelled to fix. I mean think about it. God didn’t say to Adam

“I see you’re single. Maybe you should use these 12 verses to work on yourself.”

Or

“Adam, have you ever tried online dating?”

Or

“Here’s a book on the 12 steps to navigating the single life and landing the bone of your bone and flesh of your flesh of your dreams.”

No, God had to get actively involved. God had to cut some things open. Rearrange some things. God had to re-create to make this first relationship happen.

And that’s the reality of it all.

Finding a suitable mate is one of the few things that we cannot create for ourselves, give to ourselves, or do for ourselves. God has to do it. And that may be 12 verses or 12 years but it is God’s job to provide a suitable mate.

This reality makes me think that perhaps being single is the first act of faith.

Single people must believe that this God that we worship is just as concerned about us as God was about Adam. This God is still crying out, “it is not good for humans to be alone.” Single people must allow this God to get actively involved. To cut some things open. To rearrange and recreate to make suitable relationships happen.

That means that the answer to singleness is that we have to do the uncomfortable,

The unimaginable,

The unthinkable…

We have to do nothing.

We have to actually to do the command that we are given again and again in the Bible:

We have to actually… you know… like… Wait on the Lord.

Homesick

When I was a child I used to suffer from homesickness a great deal. After a day or two of wherever I was, I pined for home. I felt a similar feeling when a family member was absent. I would get brother-sick when my brother Justin was away at Boy Scout’s camp, dad-sick when my father would travel to teach in other cities. And mom-sick, oh would I get mom-sick. My mother traveled a great deal for her job and for sport. After a day of her absence I would start crying. A few days later I would stop eating. I remember once when she was in California for a week my dad called her and said, “You’re going to have to come soon or she is going to die. We can’t get her to eat anything.” Homesickness, or my close orientation to my family, was not something I quickly grew out of either. I was the drum major of my High School marching band, a source of great honor and pride. But on the second day of Band Camp, I would call my mother in tears saying, “I’m ready to come home.”

My mom would reply every year, “I anticipated this call. I thought at least you could make it until day four. You’re the leader of the Band Tiffany, you can’t come home right now.”
One day, my mother sat me down said, “While the rest of the family has attended college in Ohio, I want to send you away to school. My fear for you is that you will go to school here and never see how big the world is outside of this city, outside of your home.”
And so we turned down offers to colleges in Ohio and at the ripe young age of 18, I headed to Atlanta bound with a call to ministry, a bible, and a miniskirt and sought to make a life for myself away from home. Committing myself in devotion to God and in service to the Church led me throughout the World. I have lived and ministered in many cities, preached and taught in places all over the country and all over the world. I have come to know, as my mother assured me, the world is indeed a big place and I have found that God is everywhere.

While I have found God leading my path every step of the way, and have made community wherever I have landed, every minister will tell you that the journey of ministry can be quite a lonely road. I believe that Jesus acted very intentionally when he sent his disciples out two by two so that they could lean on each other and comfort each other in times of fatigue and duress. Ministers need that. They need people to fill them up after giving all they have to a broken world. They need people who can see and love them without the “pastor persona.”

They need family.

There are not a lot of good models for healthy professional ministry. Due to the scarcity of pastoral positions available in general, and the confining nature of being a woman in ministry in particular, there are not a lot of spaces to state out loud what we need. The expectation is to give and give and give until we burn out or until we die in the pulpit around 72- in both instances being used up to the point that we are no longer healthy to ourselves or useful to the Church.

I defy this model.

I intend to serve God for the rest of my years and to serve God in a way that allows me to thrive and not perish. That begins with stating out loud what I need:

I need people who I can lean on in times of fatigue and duress.

I need a people who can fill me up after giving all that I have to a broken world.

I need people who can love me apart from my work in the Church.

I need my family.

I need to go home.

I’m homesick.

So after much prayer and discernment, I have decided to step down from my position at South Tryon Community Church and will be returning to Columbus, Ohio to spend time with my family. I have several opportunities to serve in Ohio but I have not yet chosen which community I will be serving. I have resisted choosing a community at random just so that I can say I have my next steps planned out.

I would like to thank the Western North Carolina Conference, my mentor James Howell and the Myers Park family for their support in my work and for their support as I took time to discern my calling.

Finally, I would like to thank my beautiful and cherished South Tryon Community Church. I strolled up with a call to ministry, a bible, and a miniskirt and they loved me, supported me, and allowed me to lead them from the first day to the last day. They have been my family. They have been my home. And I am grateful.

The Reverend Tiffany Thomas
South Tryon Community Church
Senior Pastor

When the Church Becomes an Abusive Boyfriend

Ministry shouldn’t hurt. Before you start hurling scriptures at me about taking up the cross, and suffering, hear me out. It is true that ministry is hard. It is true that ministry takes sacrifice. But ministry shouldn’t hurt. That is a truth that no one ever taught me in seminary.  But it is a conviction that lives resolutely in my soul: ministry shouldn’t hurt.
We teach young women the same concept in romance. We teach that love shouldn’t hurt. And we tell young women that if a man says he loves you but hits you or treats you badly emotionally or psychologically, then it isn’t love at all.
It is the same with ministry. If you find yourself in a ministerial setting where you are taking a pounding from the congregation, the senior staff, or the denomination, it isn’t ministry at all.
We do not tell female clergy this enough.

We live in a time when more and more women are choosing pastoral ministry as a vocation. And yet we live in a time when vocational ministry for women is still plagued with a concept of scarcity. There are so many women who stand with seminary degrees and who also stand without a job. Therefore, women are taught to just be thankful for any opportunity to serve, to pastor, to lead in the church.

“I’m just happy to be here,” is the mindset for many women as they assume their appointment, their call, and their positions. This desperation to work, this zealous willingness to serve in any location, under any circumstances, regardless of condition or compensation can lead a woman minister to wake up one day are realize that The Church has become her abusive boyfriend.

It is the elephant in the room that we all know but do not articulate out loud: women in ministry are not treated well.
The tales of abuse of women in ministry are as shocking as they are numerous.

Tales of violence. I know a female minister who was nearly raped while sitting in her pastor’s study preparing for Sunday worship. I know a woman who was fired from her prominent position because she refused to submit to the sexual propositions of her senior pastor

Tales of bullying. I know a woman who was attempting to run a leadership meeting but couldn’t get through the meeting because a hostile trustee openly and aggressively undermined her authority as pastor. I know a woman who was trapped in her office as the senior minister yelled at her until she was nearly faint with fear, pain, and grief.

Tales of disrespect. I know a woman who was denied the opportunity to serve communion even though she was fully ordained and had more seminary training than the rest of the entire ministerial staff. I know a woman who was paid least in an executive ministry team even though she had the most ministerial experience and corporate executive experience.
I could go on and on lifting up the abuses that women in ministry face in the church.

Why does this happen? If one in five seminarians are female, if more and more women are serving in fulltime professional ministry, why are women in ministry facing such abuse? The answer is two-fold, bad theology and fear.

Women clergy get trapped in abusive ministerial environments because of bad theology. Pastoral vocation is a vocation that is wrapped around the language of divine calling. We do not chose pastoral ministry, rather we are called by God into pastoral ministry. So even if the ministerial position causes pain, harm, or abuse women in ministry rationalize it by telling ourselves that God has called me to this pain, harm, or abuse. Moreover, women in ministry can easily normalize the pain and abuse by over identifying with the elements of suffering and painful sacrifice that are present in the Christian faith, “I am hurting so I must be doing something right. I must be like Christ.” And just as with an abusive boyfriend it becomes difficult for a woman to separate love from pain, love from violence, love from abuse so too when The Church becomes an abusive boyfriend it becomes difficult to separate God from violence, separate calling from coercion, and separate ministry from abuse. This is simply bad theology. God does not affirm or support violence, corruption, or coercion. God is a God of peace, of love, and of justice. If peace, love, and justice are not present in your ministerial position, then your ministerial position is not of God.

Women clergy get trapped in abusive ministerial environments because of fear. A female minister can be consumed with fear in her ministerial position. There is the fear of being disliked which makes her smile and say that everything is ok when everything is not ok. There is the fear of failure which makes a female minister muscle through even the worst situations so that others won’t say “she simply wasn’t cut out for ministry.” There is the fear of dispensability, a female minister must endure the covert and overt messages that tell her that she can be replaced at any moment with another more benign, more amiable woman.

The Church can be an abusive boyfriend to many women in ministry. The answer is not to quit for God has called us women in to pastoral ministry and we are here to stay. The answer is not to endure the abuse because God does not ordain this sort of oppression happening within The Church. The answer is in recreating the relationship between The Church and women in ministry. In order to recreate this relationship, there are three things that every woman in ministry must do:

1. Believe in your calling. If God has called you into ministry, you have to believe it. Believing in your calling will make you bolder and stronger, and less afraid. Because when God calls you, no one can take that calling from you.

2. Hold fast to your value. If you have been appointed or hired for a pastoral position, you must really believe that the gifts for ministry that you bring with you are valuable. You must really believe that the Church is made better because you are there to serve. You are not dispensable, the Church would not be the same without you.

3. Advocate for yourself. You have to speak up for yourself, no one is going to do it for you. Learn to speak up about your compensation, your job description, your support staff and other elements of employment that are hard to discuss but are necessary conversations for healthy ministry environments. Learn to speak up when someone is disrespecting you, “you are not allowed to treat me this way, talk to me this way. I am a minister of the Gospel, and a child of God.” Say it again and again until you believe it and others will believe it as well.

Being called into pastoral ministry is one of the greatest gifts that God can give. When you are called into pastoral ministry you get spend the whole day helping others to see God in Life’s great and small moments, in life’s happy and sad moments. Ministry is beautiful. And ministry is taxing. And ministry is hard. But ministry shouldn’t hurt.

Is the Devil in the Music?

devil

Is the Devil in the Music

Ezekiel 28: 12-19

Music affects me tremendously. I remember after I broke up with my college boyfriend, I couldn’t listen to music at all.  Because every song reminded me of him. Every song made me cry. So I just sat in silence for a year. Yesterday, I was running errands all day with a friend and she was listening to hip hop on the radio. By the time we returned home in the evening she looked over at me and asked,

“what’s wrong?”

“It’s the music,” I replied. “All the violence. All of the misogyny.  It’s literally making me sick.”

Now hear me out, I like Drake, and Lil’ Wayne, and Nicki Minaj, and Meek Mill (… well Meek Mill not so much) as much as the next millennial. But when you listen to the music for 6, 8, 12 hours it does something to you.  Do you know what I mean?

There are many Christians who will respond that there is a reason for that. They say that hip hop makes me feel this way because hip hop is demonic. There is a popular argument that suggests that the Devil uses music to turn people away from God and there is Biblical evidence to prove it.

My Bible study class and I had a debate one the subject and they insisted that I present our arguments to you today and so here I am. Now I confess, I have played the role of the devil’s advocate (almost literally) but I promised to present a neutral discussion, as the one’s who disagree with me don’t get the opportunity to preach. So here goes:

Is the devil in the music?

Let’s begin with a brief history of music in the Western world. So from about the 1200’s to about the 1700’s music what we call “classical.” It was the music of the Renaissance era, the Romantic era, the Enlightenment era, it was the symphonies of Bach and Beethoven… you know… the music that puts us all to sleep. That’s what music sounded like for a long time in the Western world.

And then in the late 1600’s, early 1700’s there was that peculiar institution that brought African bodies bound for America. And there, deep in the mud and muck of the southern plantations and African slave labor camps was born two new forms of music: the Spirituals and the Blues.

We know the Spirituals, we still sing them today.

“Don’t you let nobody turn you round,'”

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,”

“Wade in the water… God’s gonna’ trouble the water.”

They were songs about God.  They gave rise to the contemporary Gospel that we sing today, the songs that we sang this morning. It all started with the Spirituals.

And then there was the Blues.

It was the music that “ached so good.” It was music that wasn’t about God, it was about life. Music that spoke of how bad it felt when your woman walked out of your life. Music that spoke of how bad it felt to be poor and not have a penny to your name.

I want you to know that even in slavery this debate went on among Christians, the Spirituals were good and the Blues were sinful. But for some reason our ancestors couldn’t let the Blues go. So even after slavery and well into the reconstruction era and beyond, there were places called Juke joints where people would sing, gamble, and grind on each other- places that were called the den of sin, the den of the devil- and then the very they would be up early for church on Sunday. And people began to notice that the same musicians who were performing on Saturday night were the same church musicians on Sunday morning. And everyone loved the music all the same.

As the Blues began to grow and develop it gave rise to Jazz, and rock and roll, and r&b, and finally in the 1980’s, in the mean streets of New York City, something entirely new was born… hip hop.

Hip hop is but poetry with a beat, poetry set to a rhythm.

In defense of hip-hop, it is the music of African American intrepidation and defiance. In a culture that has for centuries attempted to control, imprison, oppress, and kill the black race, hip-hop is the voice of a people who refuse to die. And when the young black boy who hasn’t eaten in three days walks to school with shoes that have holes through and through, as he puts his headphones on and turns Jay-Z up he is saying to the world, “despite it all. I am still here. I am still alive.” That’s what hip-hop is.

On the other hand, hip-hop is marked by it’s negative themes:

Gang violence- the “us vs. them” rhetoric.

Drug use and distribution- getting high and getting rich getting others high.

Sexually explicit content- have you noticed that every rap song lately is about strippers?

If I had the time I could identify for you where in history these elements came from, the rising of gangs in the 80’s, the introduction of crack-cocaine in poor black communities in the late 70’s, the sexual revolution in the 60’s- but I don’t have time to break it down for you… you should have come to Bible study. Suffice it to say, hip hop has some pretty violent imagery and get’s blamed for the ills in the black community:

Hip hop is the reason that teenage girls are getting pregnant at 15.

Hip hop is the reason that the homicide rate is so high in the black community.

Hip hop is the reason that young boys do not mind going to prison.

Hip hop is the reason that drug abuse is ripping families apart.

Hip hop is at fault. Because hip hop is of the devil.

It’s the devil, you see. The devil is using the music to kill, steal, and destroy us. And we have for some time used the Bible to “prove” this argument. We have told this tale about Satan. That he was the head of music in heaven and then he became pretentious and willful and was cast from the sky on to earth. But he still uses his gifts for music to stir us all to sin. And the text we read together this morning is typically used as Biblical evidence for this legend. Ezekiel 28 is the text that is used to back this claim that the devil is in the music:

verse 12, “you were the seal of perfection full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.

verse 14, “with an anointed cherub as guardian, I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God.”

Verse 17, “your heart was proud because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor.

Verse 19b, “you have come to a dreadful end and shall be no more forever

When we read this text we think that Ezekiel is talking about Satan’s great expulsion from the choir loft in the sky.

But what if I told you that this text is not about Satan at all?

This text and the book of Ezekiel is to and about the kings in and around Israel. This particular text is about the King of Tyre. The prophet is using the ancient rhetoric of the garden of Eden to let the king know that God will expel him from his kingdom in the same way that Adam was expelled from paradise. It’s a political, contextual, specific polemic against a corrupt monarch. It is not about Lucifer at all.

What if I were to tell you that contrary to what we have been saying all this time…what if I said  the devil is not in the music… the devil is in the church.

I said it. The problem is not the music, the problem is the church.

There is no essential power in hip hop music. You could sit me in a room and force me to listen to Nicki Minaj talk about her butt all day and there is nothing she could say, no music video she could make that was so compelling that it would make me want to get butt injections.

You could sit me in a room and force me to listen to Lil Wayne rap about getting high all day and there is nothing that he could say that would make me want to drink that syrup or whatever it is that makes him crazy as hell.

Why? Because my identity is not formed or shaped by Nicki Minaj or Lil Wayne. My identity is formed in Christ.

Therein lies the problem. For a whole generation of people, hip hop is providing a sense of identity. Hip hop is providing a sense of hope. Hip hop is offering a world view and perspective…. Hip hop is doing the work of the church.

The problem is that the  Church provides an identity, a world view and a perspective too but it is one that most people do not fit into. At church you are expected to be a “good stand up Christian.” And being a good Christian is a journey, it takes a lifetime. But church members are expected to have it already figured out. And for those who haven’t got it figured out, for those who can’t fake it like they have it figured out, they do not belong at church.

People who are dealing with the mud and muck of life

when things are not right in life.

when life is a mess:

“I love my wife, I do, but I can’t stop cheating on her.” People like that.

“I know I should leave my boyfriend, he hits me. But I love him so deeply.” People like that.

“I want to put the crack pipe down but it’s like fire inside of me. And I hunger for it all of the time.” People like that.”

“I was born a man. But I feel like I was supposed to be a woman.” People like that.

“I can’t find a job so I sell drugs because mamma’s rent still has to get paid.” People like that.

People like that are not welcome in the church.

And so such people just don’t show up to church and  turn to other voices for identity, and hope, and meaning. They turn to hip hop.

And as Christians, as a community of believers, we have to stop blaming the Devil and take a long hard look at our institution. We have the answer. We have the truth. It’s our mission to tell everyone that the provision you are looking for,

the hope that you are looking for,

the love that you have been waiting on,

the answer you have been searching for is not found in Drake,

or Tupac,

or Jay-Z,

the answer is in Jesus.

Jesus is the one you have been waiting on. Jesus is the one who can save you. Jesus is the one who can heal you. Jesus is the one who can free you. It’s not Jay-Z, it’s Jesus.

It is not until we the church stops pointing the finger of blame at the Devil and starts actually being the Church that transformation can ever happen. When we begin to let people who are broken be broken before God in our sanctuaries and find healing with our Lord, transformation will finally happen.

Then teenagers will stop getting pregnant.

Then the homicide rate will go down.

Then drug abuse will stop ripping apart families.

Then we will finally reign in the kingdom of God.

The devil is not in the music, my friends. The devil is in here. And it’s time to exorcise our Christian institution of hatred, of judgement, of exclusion, and intolerance in order to make  room for peace and hope, and healing, and love so that God’s people may finally find exactly what they need.

And what they need is Jesus.

Let’s stop blaming the music, let’s stop blaming the devil, and let’s start changing the world.

To Smash or To Pass?

I Corinthians 7:1-10

smashorpasspic1

For some reason the Christian tradition looks almost exclusively to Paul’s writing for the basis of Christian sexual ethics. A particularly favorite text in talking about appropriate and inappropriate sexual activity is I Corinthians 7. When we look at I Corinthians 7:1-10 we find Paul not overly excited about the institution of marriage. He states that he would prefer that no one get married but if there are married people that is ok. He offers advice about sexual engagement inside the sanctity of marriage, “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband” (Corinth 7:3). He advises the unmarried to remain unmarried but concedes that celibacy is a spiritual gift (Corinthians 7:7) and if one finds abstinence too hard then “they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (Corinthians 7:9).  It’s important to note that Paul isn’t excited about marriage because he believed that Christ was about to return at any moment. And he believed that Christians should be less concerned with settling down and getting married and more concerned with reigning in the kingdom of God.

With that being said, I am not exactly sure why his ideas about marriage and sex are the foundation for Christian ethics but so it is.  The Christian Tradition capitalizes on Paul’s words to clearly and explicitly state that sex should only happen within the confines of marriage. The Tradition states that any sexual encounter outside the Holy Covenant of marriage is a sin. We have used the word “fornication” to describe a sexual act outside of marriage and we believe that is it sexually immoral, sinful, and wrong.

Now, I could trouble this argument if I wanted to. I could begin by pointing out that by his own admission, celibacy is a spiritual gift that not all are gifted with (I Corinth 7:7). But I am not going to do that. Or I could point out that outside of Paul’s reflections on sex and sexual immorality, the Bible is full of sexual encounters that are beautiful, that are prescriptive even- that do not take place within the confines of marriage. But I am not going to do that.  I could show, if I had time to teach you all ancient Greek, that  the word “fornication” does not mean “sex outside of marriage” – that is a very lazy and uncritical definition of the word. But no, I’m not going to do that.  Or I could show how our present, Western, modern understanding of marriage today looks absolutely nothing like marriage as it is depicted in the Bible and so perhaps our sexual ethics should evolve just as our understanding of marriage has evolved. But no, no, I am not going to do any of those things. It is not my intention nor my end today to argue with the Tradition. So as the Pastor, as the guarantor of our tradition and the mantle holder of our faith, it is incumbent upon me to stand flat-footed and proclaim these words:

Sex outside of marriage is a sin.  

There. I said it. And if the Bishop comes by asking you how I feel about sex outside of marriage, I want you to be able to clearly state these words. Say it with me, “Sex outside of marriage is a sin.”

Now, I could speak for 20 minutes about how bad it is to engage in any sexual practice outside of marriage, use my words to cut and convict you- make you cry and run to the alter full of shame and remorse but I am not going to do that today either. I am not going to do that because I am not stating anything that you do not already know- everyone was taught from a young age that sex outside of marriage is wrong. But the reality is

The masses of men and women are having sex. Married. Single. Divorced. Widowed.

People are having sex. And the church has only two responses to that reality, the Church either says nothing at all or the church says “wait until you are married.” It is clear that this “wait until you are married” rhetoric is anachronistic and unhelpful for the masses of Christians for several reasons:

First, generally speaking, many if not most Americans have their first sexual encounter – they are faced with the opportunity to engage in sex or some sexual activity, before the legal marrying age. Teenagers, Sometimes even younger, are experiencing, exploring, and experimenting with their sexuality and because of that reality it is unusual- although not unheard of- but unusual for one to be a virgin at the point of marriage. The Church should have something to say about this. But we are silent on the subject.

Second, generally speaking, marriage happens a lot later today than it ever has before. 60 years ago, the average American entered marital bliss around the age of 18. Now it is not uncommon for marriage to take place almost ten years later. Or 12. Or 15. or 30. Many people are choosing to get married later on in life and are cultivating sexual ethics outside the lens of marriage. The Church should have something to say about this. But we are silent on the subject.

Third, marriage, today, has a pesky tendency to end. The divorce rate is rising higher than the marriage rate. And there are many Christians who have tried marriage, hated it, and find themselves unmarried trying to figure out what their sexual habits should be now that they are single again. The Church should have something to say about this. But we are silent on the subject. What’s more, there are those who have had long, happy, prosperous marriages but their spouses have died. There are many widows and widowers who are no longer in the “married” category but may not be ready to just “get married again” as Paul recommends in I Corinthians 7, but who nevertheless have sexual desires and sexual needs and are wondering what they should and should not do. The Church should have something to say about this. But we are silent on the subject.

Congregations today are filled with people who are not married. They are not of marrying age yet and they are having sex. They are single, never married. And they are having sex. They are single, divorced. And they are having sex. They are single, widowed. And they are having sex. The masses of men and women are having sex.  And the church’s archaic, underdeveloped, unsympathetic conversation about healthy sexual ethics for all regardless of marital status or worse yet, the Church’s total silence on the issue has left the Christian community, especially the Black Christian community,  in crisis.

People who are unmarried are desperate for some guide, some advice, some tools to navigate living a sexual life. They are so desperate for the water that the Church chooses not to provide that they will drink the sand. That’s how it is possible for a man like Steve Harvey to write best seller called “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.” Steve Harvey, a 6 time divorcee and professional entertainer SHOULD NOT be the spokesman and expert on Black women’s sexuality. But the Church will not speak and the masses are desperate for anyone to stand and provides some ethics, some rules to live by. Your sexual ethics should not come from Love & Hip Hop, or Oprah, or Iyanla Vanzant, or the locker room, or the barber shop, or the beauty shop. Your sexual ethics should be grounded and shaped right here in your community of faith.

That means that we will have to do the unthinkable, the unimaginable, the abominable… We are going to have to start offering practical sexual advice for the unwed at church. Because “just don’t have sex” isn’t helping anyone. So today I am going to offer practical sexual ethics for those who are not married. In order  guide this conversation, we are going to play a little game that I have named “Smash or Pass?”

I will offer five scenarios and you will have to determine whether it is appropriate to smash (engage in sexual intercourse) or Pass (Choose not to engage in sexual intercourse).

Let’s Play:

  1. You are 15 years old. And you have been talking to your little girlfriend for a couple of months now. Or your little boyfriend gets your nails done. He buys you whole meals from McDonald’s not just the dollar menu (I’m not just talking to teenagers, I know some of you older women think like this too… don’t lie) and you really like him. Or her.  Do you smash or pass?

PASS! 

Yes, pass. Christians must begin to make mature and thoughtful sexual decisions at a young age. You will be faced with sexual encounters, you will be faced with the decision on what to do with your body and with whom from now until forever. And instead of bouncing from sexual encounter to sexual encounter until you figure out what is going on, you should pass. Sex is a complicated thing, to do it in a healthy way you must be able to do some very difficult things, like talk openly about expectations, safety, hopes, fears- it takes a certain maturity that you simply do not have right now. And if you can say now “I am mature enough to know that I am not mature enough to do this” and begin to make clear sexual boundaries now, the easier it will be to create healthy sexual habits later on in life.” Anyone under 18, just pass. (I am not saying that at 18 you should have sex like rabbits, that is not the point)

Now mind you, I said ANYONE under 18. We have a problem in our community in that we give young boys a license for sexual freedom and yet we want to control the sexuality of young girls. Who do you think they are having sex with? We turn a blind eye or say it is ok for a young man to stick his ding-a-ling into everything and then wonder why 15 year old’s keep getting pregnant. It’s time to change the culture of the sexual environment. Teach the young girls AND the young boys about maturity, and control, and restraint. If both young men and young women can get in the habit of learning when to say yes and when to say no, things will be different in our community.

2.  You have recently met someone. You met her at a club and got her number and you two have been texting heavy. Or you met him because he’s your brother’s baby’s mamma’s cousin’s friend. You two have been texting heavy. And you decide to hang out so you agree to meet up to “watch Netflix and chill.” The movie sucks but the conversation is on point and honestly you know you didn’t come to watch a movie anyway. Things begin to steam up really fast.

You are ready. He is ready.

You are ready. She is ready.

But you reach in your pocket and realize you do not have a condom. You ask,

“Are you on birth control?”

she says, “yea and don’t worry I’m safe.”

or he asks you and you are on birth control, and he seems safe, and he’s so hot. In the heat of the moment do you pass or smash?

PASS!

You all are a mess! You said pass when all the children running around here were conceived in that particular scenario! This moment will happen again and again. The goal to fostering healthy and safe sexual practices is to be able to slow down the moment enough to consider what it is you are about to do. Slow down long enough to ask yourself “Should I smash or should I pass?” And begin to practice passing when you know it is not a good idea. Self control is not intuitive, it is a muscle that must be exercised. So many get into this situation or similar situations and they quite literally do not know to stop. Men and women alike, they cannot stop themselves, they cannot stop the moment, they cannot stop their partner. You must learn to practice restraint- for the sake of your soul (remember, this is sin we are talking about) but also for the sake of your health. Chlamydia is charging through Charlotte, NC like wildfire. The average rate of infection is higher here than the NC average, it’s higher here than the national average! And that is just chlamydia, we all know that if you do not learn self control you can mess around and get something that antibiotics won’t get rid of. So remember ask yourself “should I smash or should I pass” or in other words “What am I doing?”

3.  You have been in a relationship for several months now. And you think this one is the one. You are taking her home to meet your mother at thanksgiving and that is a very big deal. You have gotten to the point where you can’t imagine life without him and you have never felt that way before. You are both in it for the long haul. Do you smash or do you pass?

SMASH!

OK so here is the thing, sex outside of marriage is a sin, remember. But for whatever reason, in today’s society sexual compatibility is a major part of selecting a life partner. A man asks himself:

  1. Does she get along with my mother?
  2. Can she cook?
  3. Is she a lady in the street and a freak in the bed?

If the answer is no to any of these questions, then we can’t get married.

A woman similarly asks herself:

  1. Does he have a job?
  2. Is he faithful and honest?
  3. Can he lay it down at night?

If the answer is no to any of these questions then I cannot marry him.

Sexual compatibility is a big part of how Americans choose their spouses. It has not always been that way but for whatever reason it is so now. Again, marriage, how we do it and how we choose it, has changed. In order to have healthy sexual habits you must be intentional. It should matter to you who you choose to take as a sexual partner. And sexual intimacy should be meaningful and purposeful. It should lead somewhere. To marriage. You know, so you get out of sin… remember? So in asking yourself “do I smash or pass?’ ask yourself “who am I having sex with?”

4. Your wife of ten years won her battle against cancer and went on to be with the Lord a few years ago. At first the grief was unbearable and while it still hurts every single day, its more of a quiet pain, rather than an earth quaking terror. It helps that you have met someone. She held you while you cried over another woman and laughed with you as you shared cherished memories. She has been there for you in a time when you have desperately needed someone. Do you smash or do you pass?

SMASH! 

The conversation about Christian sexuality  is so narrow that is often leaves out those who have been married before. Marriage ends sometimes. Death occurs. The spouse may die or the marriage itself may die, ending in divorce. But one thing that does not die is a person’s need for love, companionship, and intimacy.

5. Last one, you finally broke it off with that no account, low down, broke ass negro (I said it) and you have sworn off men and are focused on getting your life together. Only problem is that you are so. damn. lonely. There is a guy who you invited over just to have someone around. You don’t like this guy. He isn’t your type. You don’t find him attractive. You have nothing in common. But, again, you are so. damn.  lonely. He leans in and kisses you.  Do you smash or do you pass?

PASS!

People have sex for all sorts of reasons. Because they are lonely. Because they feel unwanted. Because they need to feel a sense of power or control. Because they want to feel desired. Because they are depressed. People have sex for all sorts of reasons. These are all really bad reasons to have sex. Sex is a beautiful thing, it is a gift from God and it should a profound expression of love. If your sex is an outpouring of tremendous unspeakable care, adoration, and passion for your partner, then by all means, smash away (It’s a sin though, just warning you) but if it is not, If you are just bored. Lonely. Sad. Depressed. Drunk. Pass, just pass.

Friends, beginning at youth and throughout the rest of your life you will find yourself in encounters where the occasion to have sex will arise. In order to have healthy, safe sexual practices you must take the time to ask yourself

What am I doing?

Who am I doing it with?

Why am I doing it?

In other words “Do I smash or do I pass?”

Learn to answer this question with honesty and integrity and you are well on your way to abandoning a life of sin.

As your pastor, as the great guarantor of the tradition and the mantle holder of our faith, I must state boldly that

sex outside of marriage is a sin.

Really, that is all I am allowed to say. You are a sinner in the hands of an angry God. And then I am supposed to remain silent.

I am supposed to remain silent as 15 year olds keep getting pregnant.

I am supposed to remain silent as HIV/AIDS continues to slaughter  our community.

I am supposed to remain silent while men keep trying to find confidence and power in women’s panties, only to wake up each morning still feeling out of control and powerless.

I am supposed to remain silent as women keep looking for the love they never received as a child in the arms of this man, and that man, and that man over there, only to wake up each morning with absolutely no understanding of true love.

I am supposed to be silent. But no. I am not going to do that today. Today I am coming down from my lofty, high, holy, hypocritical seat in order to look you eye to eye and meet you exactly where you are.

I am going rogue today.

But I am not the first to go rogue, I come from a long legacy of prophets who have gone rogue. One such prophet left his lofty, high, holy seat in heaven in order to walk the streets and teach, looking at his children directly in their eyes. Jesus met people right where they were. Without condemnation. Without degradation. Rather, he met the masses of men and women with sympathy, and compassion, and with a great understanding of the human condition.

And the human condition is thus:

The masses of men and women are having sex. Married. Single. Divorced. Widowed.

So take a moment and ask yourself, “do I smash or do I pass?”

Amen.

I will not have sex with you: Reflections on Coming of Age in a Culture of Rape

I went to a college that had extremely close ties with Bill Cosby. I spent nearly all four years studying and learning in a building that was named for him because of his generous endowment to my institution. My school has recently decided to cut all ties with him. Upon reading the report of their separation with Cosby, I have been reflection on how painful, and shocking, and deeply disturbing it is to hear the many testimonies against him, accusing him of sexual violence of all sorts.

I have been equally pained, shocked, and deeply disturbed by hearing the rhetoric that has been pouring out in support of Cosby:

What would Bill Cosby want with those hoes?

He didn’t rape them, they wanted it.

Why would they come to his house/hotel if they didn’t know what was about to go down?

And on and on, I have heard men and women alike repeat the age-old tactic of apologizing for the perpetrator and faulting the victim. In each conversation I have had around the issue my first instinct was to use reason- to explain how it makes no sense to blame a victim for sexual violence. The if-she-was-raped-it’s-her-fault narrative is so ingrained in so many that that argument usually falls on deaf ears. And then I get angry and start yelling, which is my usual response to stupidity and injustice. And then I become resigned telling myself- this is just what it means to live in a rape culture. My sense of resignation is the most painful, and shocking, and disturbing aspect of this story.

We live in a culture of rape- it just is what it is.

No woman is exempt from sexual violence or the threat of sexual violence in America. We have learned to accept the fact that we live in a culture of rape and navigate the dangers as safely as possible. I recently broke up with my boyfriend (a long story and not for mass consumption) and I decided to hang out with a guy that I dated briefly but remained friends with. It was a rainy afternoon so we decided instead of going out we would order in and watch Netflix. Before I went to his house, I had THE text conversation that I have learned, due to our culture of rape, is essential to have before meeting with a man privately:

Me: Before I come over I need you to be alert to the fact that I will not have sex with you.
Him: Ok, that’s fine.
Me: Give me your word that you will not be sexually aggressive or coercive in any way.
Him: You have my word.

I have had to learn how to be explicit about physical and sexual boundaries. I have had to learn to get into the continuous exercise of stating out loud what I will and will not allow, what I do and do not want to happen to my body. I have had to learn this because I am a woman who has come of age in a culture of rape.

But many women know all too well that explicit refusal does not necessarily protect one from sexual violence or the threat of sexual violence.

My best friend called me recently and said, “My friend keeps finding herself in situations in which she almost gets raped. It’s happened a couple of times in the last couple of months. She asked my advice and so I am asking your advice. First, have you ever been in a situation before where you were almost raped?”

I replied, “Yes, I have.”

She exclaimed, “really?! Tell me about it.”

“Well the first time, I was in college and…”

She cut me off and said, “wait, the first time?”

I stated, “yes, It’s happened more than once”

And I began to tell her the story of a guy that I was dating in college. We were heading to the movies but we could not agree on a movie or a time, and as we sat on my couch in the living room chatting and disagreeing about movies when he began to playfully grab my arm. It was funny at first and I giggled and played along. But within a moment the harmless flirtation turned dangerous and he began to pin me down. He had a look in his eyes, vicious and animalistic- he was no longer the person I had been dating, he was someone else entirely, a creature that I could not recognize. As he began to unbutton his pants he whispered coolly, “this is your fault. You are too pretty.” I began to say No again and again and again. I looked him in the eyes and said,

“This is no. The official no. The next-time-I-see-you-it-will-be-in-court-No.”

After a few moments something changed inside of him- the vicious look went away- he recollected himself, I suppose and he let me go. He tried to laugh it off with,

“girl you know I am just playing with you,” to which I responded by promptly cussing him out and kicking him out of my house. I don’t know what it was that made him change his mind. I was just lucky. There are many women who have been in the same situation who were not so lucky.

My friend replied, “That is the same situation that my friend keeps getting into. My question is, aren’t you sort of asking for it if you let someone come into your house or if you are over at the person’s house?”
“No!” I exclaimed. “I was sitting on my couch in my living room, fully dressed in the middle of the afternoon. I was not asking for it. But even if I were in my underwear, in my bedroom in the middle of the night, a woman is never asking for it, unless she is actually asking for it!”
It’s the myth that if a woman is alone with a man privately than she should expect to be sexually accosted, “If you are alone with a man then you are asking for it”- It’s that sort of resignation that is the most painful, and shocking, and disturbing part of the story.

“Furthermore,” I told my friend, “girls get sexually violated everywhere not just in their homes.”

And then I began to tell her about the time that I was running on the neighborhood track one morning, this summer. I was in my own world entirely, riding the high of music, wind, and endorphin when I looked up and stopped just in time to see that I was approaching a white van that had pulled all the way up to the track, blocking the gate’s one exit, a man inside staring at me with the same vicious animalistic stare that I had seen before. I stared him down and carefully backed away as one does a leash-less dog that is about to attack. After a few seconds, something changed inside of him. He recollected himself, I suppose. And started the engine, backed up and drove away. I was just lucky. There are many women who have been in the same situation who were not so lucky.

I remember how angry my friends and loved ones were at me, “What is wrong with you! I don’t care if it is morning or not. Stop going to work out by yourself. Girls get abducted every day! You could have been killed!” The message was clear: if something were to happen to you while you were working out, it would be your fault because this is how our world works and you should know better. It’s this sort of resignation that is the most painful, and shocking, and disturbing part of the story.

I told my friend about the time that I was sitting in my pastor’s study early one Sunday morning, finishing my sermon (by finishing read starting and finishing). I am typically the first to arrive at church on Sundays, and I was in the habit of unlocking the side door so that I wouldn’t have to go to the door when the ushers begin to arrive an hour later. This particular morning a man, a stranger, wandered into the church. I went to see who had come so unreasonably early and finding this man poking around, I politely asked how I could help him.

He replied, “Yes. I just got out of prison. And I need clothes and shoes and food and a place to stay.”

I replied “You have come to the right place. We can help you with all of these things but I need you to come back in about an hour. The church isn’t open yet but we will be more than happy to assist you during our office hours.”

He responded, “Ok well, I need help now. Can I please speak with the pastor?”

I responded, “You are speaking with the pastor.”

He looked at me incredulously, “You are the pastor?”

“Yes, sir. And again, I and my team would love to help you, I just you need you to come back in about an hour.”

“Ok, I’ll leave. But can I at least have some water first?”

“Sure,” I replied and I pointed him to the direction of the water fountain while I remained by the door. After a few minutes he still hadn’t returned and I peeked around the corner to find that he had gone into my office. At this moment, I realized I had a problem because he was in my office and my phone, keys, wallet-everything was also in my office.

I declared in a menacing tone that I wanted him to leave before I called the police. And then he approached me as if to attack saying,

“Come here girl let me see what is underneath that dress.”

I pushed him away and yelled directly in his face,

“Get the hell out of my church!” He looked at me for a second and something happened. He recollected himself, I suppose. Because he turned and walked out of the building. I was just lucky. There are tons of female ministers and females in churches who have not been so lucky.

I called my trustees and called the police and the police came to take the report. The man had left the building but not the property. They searched him and found a knife on him. My trustees were so angry, “You could have been lying on the ground of your own church bleeding to death! You can’t be by yourself in the church anymore. We will just have to make sure that someone is here early for when you arrive.” The message was clear: We live in a world where not even sacred spaces are safe from sexual violence or the threat of sexual violence. It just is what it is. It is that sort of resignation that is the most painful, and shocking, and disturbing part of the story.

We live in a culture of rape and violence. A culture deeply reminiscent of another culture that people have been talking about as much as Bill Cosby- the culture of Sodom and Gomorrah. With the recent passing of the Supreme Court case legalizing gay marriage, Christians have been comparing America to Sodom and Gomorrah with great intensity. But what many do not realize is that Sodom and Gomorrah is not a story about homosexuality, it is a story about a community where sexual violence and the threat of violence was normative, it was standard, it was expected.
Let’s look at the text:

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.” “No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.” But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. (Gen. 19:1-3a)

In the text, Lot pleaded with them not risk staying in the square because there was such a keen threat of violence. You can almost hear his plea, “It is not safe for you here. You should know better than to risk subjecting yourself to violence.”

Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” (Gen. 19:4-5)

The men came looking for the angels almost as if on que, verifying Lot’s concern for their safety and their lives. Lot knew that this would happen because he knew that sexual violence of this sort was an intrinsic part of the culture that he lived in.
Lot goes on to say,

“No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. 8 Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”(Gen. 19:7-8)

He says to the men, “here, rape my daughters instead. You are going to rape somebody, it is what it is, just take them” It is this resignation that is the most painful, shocking, and disturbing part of the story.

And we are guilty of this same resignation. When we cry out strongly against homosexuality, attempting to unfairly and unjustly control and constrain, demean and disrupt the sexual habits of homosexual consenting adults and yet we remain silent about the sexual violence girls of all ages are experiencing in their nurseries, their dormitories, their homes, and even their churches- we are making the same public statement of resignation, “Here, rape my daughters instead.”
If the Christian community could be even half as angry about Bill Cosby and his victims of sexual violence as they were about the Supreme Court decision, then things would be different in this county. If the Christian community could cry out even half as loud about the prevalence of rape and sexual violence against women as they unfairly and unjustly cry out against the homosexual community, then things would be different in this country.

America is just like Sodom and Gomorrah.

It is.

But not because of the homosexual community. It is like Sodom and Gomorrah because of the complete and unquestioned acceptance of sexual violence that is a foundational part of our culture.

And I can see God’s clouds of judgement, I can smell sulfur burning in the air whenever I hear someone say,

“She wanted it.”

“She was asking for it”

“She should have known what was about to go down”

Or in other words, “here, rape my daughters instead.

It is time for the Christian community to support and stand with each victim who has bravely come forward with their story of enduring sexual violence at the hands of Bill Cosby. And it is time for the Christian community to support and stand with each and every woman who has ever texted, stated, or screamed,
I will not have sex with You.

Fixing Her Hair: Sexual Exploitation, Domestic Violence, And Jesus

My friend and colleague Sarah Howell is the lead Pastor of this awesome worship service called Roots Revival. For lent, this worship community is reflecting on Matthew 25:31-46, each week hearing a sermon about the hungry, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner, etc and each week they are reflecting on how to realize in everyday life Jesus’ call to be compassionate to “the least of these.” I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in the sermon series, my verse was “Matthew 25:36 “When I was naked and you clothed me:

Fixing Her Hair

Matthew 25:36a

I was naked and you clothed me.

When Sara, her team, and I began to think about the naked, we were inspired by Ani DiFranco’s song “Fixing Her Hair,” you will be lead in worship to this song at the conclusion of my message but I’d like for you to hear the words now, especially the last stanza:

She is still playing the martyr I am still praying for revolution
And she still doesn’t have what she deserves
But she wakes up smiling every day, she never really expected more
That’s just not the way we are raised
And I say to her, You know, there’s plenty of really great men out there
But she doesn’t hear me, she’s looking in the mirror
She’s fixing her hair.

The song is about a person talking about her friend who is in an abusive relationship. The song addresses the way that violence toward women is rationalized,

“she has a way to rationalize, says he don’t mean what he does,”

and normalized,

“she never really expected more, That’s just not the way we were raised.”

And the song discusses the feelings of frustration and helplessness and hope of a person attempting to be present to a woman in a violent situation,

“I am still praying for revolution, And she still doesn’t have what she deserves.”

This song made us think about Matthew 25:36 when Jesus said, “I was naked, and you clothed me.”

When I think of naked bodies, I think of Genesis 2 when God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden, and walked with them in the cool of the evening and the Bible says “they were naked and not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25). But nakedness has become a symbol of feelings of shame, and pain, and violence. It was ancient practice to strip prisoners, and slaves, and debtors of their clothing to inspire shame and to strip them of their dignity. Jesus preached these words during a time when it would not have been unusual to see a such a naked person in public. Although today it would be considered quite unusual to see a naked person out in the community, we yet live in a time where many people’s naked bodies are bound, inextricably bound to shame, and violence, and pain.

All over the world, naked bodies are being abused and violated. And worse still, in many cases it is a normal and accepted part of life.

In Burma, a country in South East Asia, a little village girl is sold by her parents to a brothel in the city at the age of 7. The brothel sells her virginity to the highest bidder and because she is so young they can get away with selling her virginity again and again throughout the day. When the little girl is asked how she feels about the selling of her virginity, she articulates a source of pride because that day her virginity was sold for the highest price of all the prostitutes in the place. When the man is asked why he paid a record high price to have sex with this girl, and why he chose this girl out of all the other women in the brothel, the man responds, “because she looks like a child.”* Violence of this sort is rationalized and normalized in many parts of the world.

Burma is on the other side of the world, but the issue of sexual violence and exploitation hits much closer to home.

Here in the US 1 in 4 female students have been the victims of rape or attempted rape on college campuses. A startling 25% of female college students will experience violence and abuse to their naked bodies before they graduate.**

This issue hits even closer to home:

Here in North Carolina, the Department of Homeland Security has named NC a hotbed of human trafficking because the international airport in Charlotte in conjunction with all the different interstates that cross NC, it is easy to bring in women from all over the world and maneuver them to different parts of the country undetected.***

This issue hits even closer to home:

In our churches, in our families, we all know a mother, a sister, a friend, a coworker who is enduring life in a domestically violent relationship. Her naked body bespeaks the beatings, and battering, and bruising inflected on her by her romantic partner.

All over the world, in our nation, in our state, in our churches, in our communities, in our homes naked bodies are being abused. And this text suggests that Jesus can be found in these bodies.

Jesus’ broken but beautiful body can be found in the 7 year old girl who will sell her virginity to the highest bidder 7 times today.

Jesus’ broken but beautiful body can found in the college student who will begin her night at a frat party and end her night with a rape kit.

Jesus’ broken but beautiful body can be found in the woman from Brazil, Thailand, East Africa who, moments ago, just arrived to the Charlotte-Douglass International Airport and is about to head up Highway 77 to meet her fate as a slave in a prostitution ring.

Jesus’ broken but beautiful body can be found in our sister, our friend, our neighbor who is fixing her hair in an attempt to hide the black eye, the swollen lip, the red cheek of violence.

Theirs are the naked bodies in which Jesus can be found and if we listen we can hear Jesus whispering to us, “When I was naked, you clothed me.”

But the question that you have been asking every week is How? And we ask today, how can we clothe the naked?

There are three ways: we can Fight, we can Face, and we can Befriend.

First, we can support organizations  that are on battlefields fighting the presence of domestic violence, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation in the world. They need our resources and our support. Here are just three organizations nearby that you can support:

  1. Triad Ladder of Hope- it’s a NC based organization that works to eradicate human enslavement and human trafficking locally and abroad.
  2. The Winston-Salem Family Services Shelter- it is a shelter that helps women and their children to escape violent and abusive living conditions.
  3. RAIIN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network)- it is the nation’s largest anti-sexual assault organization.

We clothe the naked by helping to fight these systems of shame, violence and abuse.

Second, we must face it. We must face the ways in which we participate in and rationalize a worldview that supports and even promotes violence, especially violence toward women. For example, the ways in which we blame the victims of violence.

I hear it all the time when a woman says that her mate hit her, the first question is almost always, “well what did you do to make him do that?” I’m sure you all remember the Ray Rice incident when he attacked his then fiancé in an elevator, it was all over the news, all over ESPN. And I am sure you heard the loud rationalization in response to the violence, “women need to learn to stop provoking these men.”

We can clothe the naked when we ask ourselves what are the ways in which we are participating in this structure of violence and abuse?

We have to face the ways that we participate in and rationalize a worldview that supports and even promotes the sale of sex and sexual violence. How are we perpetuating the sex industry? When you think about supporting the sex industry and purchasing sex you may think of strip clubs, porn, buying prostitutes but there are more subtle ways that we support the multi-billion dollar sex-industry:

We support it in the music we listen to.

We support it in the books we read.

We support it in the movies we watch (I almost entitled this message, “Why I will never watch 50 Shades of Grey”).

We clothe the naked by facing the ways that we support and promote the sale of sex and sexual violence.

Finally, we clothe the naked by befriending the victims. The interesting thing in the Matthew text is that Jesus said “you fed me, you clothed me, you visited” he never said, “you saved me.” Jesus is not calling us to be saviors but calling us to be present to “the least of these” in profound and transforming ways.

Jesus says “when I was naked, you clothed me” it sounds to me like a call to get near enough, to draw near enough to the naked body without reflexing in terror, in horror, in shame. Be present. Befriend.

In my line of work, I have met prostitutes and even call friends people who have been prostitutes at some point in their lives. The stories that they tell could make you weep. I have a friend who still to this day participates in prostitution because she feels it is the only way to provide resources to her children. And as I sit with her, holding her hand as she cries, Ani DriFranco’s song rings true,

“I am still praying for revolution, And she still doesn’t have what she deserves”

I am still praying for a time when she believes that she has more to offer the world than what’s in between her legs.

I am still praying for a time when we do not live in a world where women are excluded from the distribution of resources in such an extreme way that they have to take such extreme measures in order to have the basic necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter.

I am still praying for a revolution. But in meantime, I call her friend.

We clothe the naked by befriending the victims of sexual violence and exploitation.

I knew of a woman who once worked at a church and she noticed that around the corner from the church there was a community of prostitutes being sold by their pimps. She decided one day to go over there. She started visiting everyday. She got to know the prostitutes. She would check on them, check in with them and she began to distribute condoms and clean needles to them. She said that was her ministry to them, passing out condoms and clean needles. She did it for years before she died.

And you know, they say that in all of the years that she hung out on this corner, getting to know the prostitutes and passing out condoms, only a handful of women ever asked her to assist them to get out of the situation. Only a handful ever told her “I am done. Please help me to get out of this.” She overwhelmingly did not clean up the streets of prostitution. But I believe with great conviction that when she faces Jesus on that promised Day of Judgment he will say to her,

“I was naked and you clothed me.”

She will likely respond, “When Jesus, when were you naked and I clothed you?”

And Jesus will look at her, with the light of heaven in his eyes, and say to her,

“I was a prostitute, and you gave me a condom.”

Whatever you do to the least of these, you have done to me.

Amen.

* Because She Looks Like a Child.
Bales, Kevin. “Because She Looks like a Child.”Global Woman. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2002. 207-29. Print.