Thursday, May 26, 2005

Render unto God, Part I

We at Jeff Street are blessed to have the best pastor in the world. It can be difficult to include her sermons here in this blog, as they might lose something out of context. But her sermons are so consistently fantastic, that I really ought to try occasionally. And so, I offer one from Lent last year:

One of the things that I've noticed as I've studied the book of Mark during this Lenten season is that Jesus wasn't as set on answering questions as he was on asking them. It happens over and over again, someone or a group of someones would ask him a question, and instead of answering it, he'd ask them one back.

Ched Myers says that Jesus' strategy was to break the spell of credulity (a disposition to believe on slight evidence) that the social order casts over its subjects and so to force a crisis of faith. Jesus engages the listener with disturbing and disrupting quandaries that animate toward change, rather than with logically satisfying answers that pacify.

Of course, the church over the years, instead of learning to do the same, instead of asking questions that move people toward changing, has fallen into the roll of coming up with answers that make everyone just feel good instead.

Myers says that Jesus isn't the answer to our questions, but is rather, the question to our answers. And in this morning's story, Jesus questions to the Pharisees also bring in question some of our deeply held answers about what it means to be a Christian and an American.

The Pharisees and the Herodians, which are an unlikely combination, an alliance of enemies, you might say, come together to trap Jesus. They begin by flattering him, setting him up: Because you're such a man of integrity, they say, we know that you'll answer this question truthfully (and then we'll get you!) Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?

Paying taxes was a test of loyalty that divided those who collaborated with the Roman occupiers from the revolutionaries. According to Myers, no true Jewish patriot would have used such an idolatrous currency as a Roman coin. Not only did it have the image of Caesar, which a good Jew would see as a graven image, but it also bore an inscription extolling Caesar as the August and Divine Son. Down the road a bit, during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the refusal to pay taxes would be seen as the major cause of the war and the revolutionary provisional government in Palestine would mint its own coins.

That's how hot this question was. Jesus' antagonists knew that if Jesus said that one should pay taxes that he would anger the Jewish patriots, the revolutionaries. And they knew that if he said not to pay taxes that he would anger the Romans.

So Jesus knows that they're trying to trap him, trying to force him to take sides, remember, Jesus has been teaching his disciples the third way, not capitulation to the Romans, and not violent resistance, but rather non-violent resistance. But here they're trying to pin him down to one of the other ways. And so after saying, "Why put me to the test?" that should have been their warning right there, he says, "Bring me a coin, and let me look at it."

Notice, Jesus does not have a coin himself, and he makes it clear here that he does not have a coin. He is not a collaborator with Rome. They do have a coin, however, and in being able to produce it for Jesus, they do what they were trying to get Jesus to do, they reveal their political allegiances, they identify themselves as collaborators with Rome...

"Whose likeness and inscription is this?" Jesus asks. They answer, "Caesar's."

Render to Caesar - and let me stop here and explain that the word render means pay back, as if you were paying back a debt - render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. Pay back to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and pay back to God the things that are God's.

Now there are, of course, a lot of ways that this has been interpreted through the years, but according to Myers, the choices between the rival authorities of God and Caesar articulated in this verse could scarcely be stated more sharply. There are simply no grounds for reading the render statement as an exhortation to pay the tax.

Indeed, Luke's gospel records that Jesus' accusers, when they try Jesus before Pilate, say that they have found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding us to give tribute (i.e., pay taxes) to Caesar...

But what the church has done for years has been to use this passage to live as if we could have two allegiances, to live as if there were two different worlds, two different realms that had claim over us. You've got God's realm over here, the spiritual or religious world, and it's all about heavenly things, and you've got this other realm over here, the political realm, and you should give a little bit to both.

But Jesus, in saying to render to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God that which is God's, isn't suggesting that we split our allegiances. I mean, just compare the two. Caesar, God. The United States of America, God. Jesus wasn't expecting his listeners to weigh the two equally. Jesus was saying that it's all God's. If you owe something to Caesar, if you have something of Caesar's, give it back. But it is, of course, God who is our all in all, creator of all, source of our life and breath, it is to God that we owe everything. There is no competition here, everything that we have, everything that we are, all of our allegiance is to God.

The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell within. The Caesars and the George Bushes and the Saddam Husseins. If only, if only we could see it.
by Pastor Cindy, but wait! There's more!


Originally uploaded by jeffstreet1.

Render unto God, Part II

Frederick Buechner, in an article entitled, Journey to Wholeness, tells about how in a segment of the Ken Burns series on the Civil War that public television showed ten or so years ago, there were a number of scenes of the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913.

The old men came back one summer day, Confederate and Union veterans both, to commemorate the occasion, and there were many ancient movies of them as they moved around jerkily through the grainy, lightstruck film, eating, listening to speeches, talking over old times and swapping stories.

The most moving part of it to me was the reenactment of Pickett's Charge. There were no pictures of it as far as I can remember, but the sound track described it in the words of somebody who had actually been there at the time it was reenacted. The old Union soldiers took their places among the rocks on Seminary Ridge, the old Confederate soldiers took theirs on the farmland below, and after a while the Confederates started to move forward across the broad, flat field where half a century earlier so many of them had died. "We could see not rifles and bayonets," the eyewitness account said, "but canes and crutches" as they made their slow advance toward the ridge with the more able-bodied ones helping the disabled ones to maintain their place in the ranks.

As the Confederate troops got near the Union line, they broke into one long, defiant rebel yell, and then something remarkable took place. "A moan, a sigh, a gigantic gasp of disbelief rose from the men on Seminary Ridge" is the way the eyewitness described it. Then at that point, unable to restrain themselves, the Yankees burst from behind the stone wall and flung themselves upon their former enemies. Only this time, unlike fifty years earlier, they did not do battle with them. Instead they threw their arms around them. Some in blue uniforms and some in grey, the old men embraced one another and wept.

If only the old men had seen in 1863 what, for a moment, they glimpsed in 1913. Half a century later, they saw that the great battle had been a great madness. The men who were advancing toward them across the field of Gettysburg were not enemies. They were human beings like themselves, with the same dreams, needs, hopes, the same wives and children waiting for them to come home, if they were lucky enough to come home at all. What they saw was that, beneath all the fear and hostility and misunderstanding that divide human beings in this broken world, all humankind is one. What they saw was that we were, all of us, created not to do battle with each other but to love each other, and it was not just a truth they saw. For a few moments, it was a truth they lived. It was a truth they became.

If only the old men had seen in 1863 what, for a moment, they glimpsed in 1913.

For a brief time, the old war veterans were able to fling aside their allegiances to the powers of this world, to the powers that had held them for so long, and see, and live, in a new realm, under a new allegiance.

And that is the realm where Jesus calls us to live, a realm where all are broken brothers and sisters in need of wholeness, in need of forgiveness and grace, a realm where swords are beaten into plowshares and soldiers throw down their arms. A realm where Caesar's claims, when in conflict with God's, have no hold over us whatsoever.

We're not there, of course, not by a long shot. But the vision is there, and the call is there: Give back to God what belongs to God. And of course, the question is there.

What does that mean for you and for me today, this week? What do we owe God? And how do we pay it back?
by Pastor Cindy, who is a threat to all the right folk for all the right reasons

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The rare Teal-bellied Grape Guardian

The rare Bluebellied Grape Guardian
Originally uploaded by jeffstreet1.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Flowers for Vickie

My wife, Donna, wanted us to go out and take some photos for our friend in the hospital. She's going to be in the hospital for a while and she has expressed sorrow at missing out on the eruption of spring outside. Sweet Donna thought it might cheer our friend if we could fill her room with photos of flowers and greenery from our collective yards. If she can't go home, we could bring a bit of home to her.

It's great to be part of such a family. I know it's hard, but we do at least try to look out for one another. Lord, help us do so all the more.

In addition to the hard copy photos going to the hospital, I thought I'd share some here online for us all to enjoy.

And so, we present Springtime Flowers for our Friend:


Originally uploaded by jeffstreet1.


Originally uploaded by jeffstreet1.

For you

Originally uploaded by jeffstreet1.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Originally uploaded by jeffstreet1.

Rubies, Gold and Jade

Originally uploaded by jeffstreet1.

It's a small world

It's a small world
Originally uploaded by jeffstreet1.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Spring has sprung

Originally uploaded by jeffstreet1.

a sea of flowers

Originally uploaded by jeffstreet1.

a flower for our dear friend

Originally uploaded by jeffstreet1.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Church History

I've had the thought here lately that it would be cool to plan a storytelling night. But not just any stories. We could gather around a fireplace, turn off the lights and tell our Tales of the Church I Grew Up In! Actually, while some might tend towards the scary and horrifying, I'm sure some of us have some pleasant memories to recall, as well.

Since I've been thinking this, it was with great joy that our own Sue Fridenstine addressed us yesterday on Pentecost Sunday and shared a deeply appreciated remembrance of her church, printed below. Thanks Sue. Who's next?


Several years ago there was a popular essay called, “Everything I Need to Know about Life I Learned In Kindergarten.” My own version of that essay for this Pentecost Sunday would be entitled, “Everything I need to know about the church, I learned as the daughter of the chair of the Bereavement Meal Committee”. The first essay mentioned had lots of little points like, “hold hands” and “take naps”. My essay has multiple references to……well, … ham.

Just as a brief overview, the Bereavement Meal is a meal served by a group of the folks from the church whenever anyone from the church loses a loved one or when someone from the church passes. There’s never any question about if there are enough folks to pull it together or if anyone will head it up. It’s a well oiled machine, and the only question is whether you want your meal at the church served by the committee or brought to the house.

As a child, I did my share of helping schlep hams back and forth from Kroger to be baked and back to be sliced and then on to the church. As a teen, I rolled my eyes when I discovered that the church actually had bereavement hams as a line item in the church budget. As a young adult, I thought it a sappy tradition. But the older I get, the more I realize that in fact, this IS “church”. I’ve come to see something almost sacramental in the baking of the ham and the passing of the corn pudding and the washing of the dishes. I am a witness to the concrete presence of Christ. And I see there a long and abiding faithfulness to be present with folks.

I was not raised in a church where folks said, “If I can do anything, give me a call.” Folks call and say, “What day this week can I cut your grass?” Dinners show up. When someone you love is in surgery or you are waiting to hear news, folks just show up and sit there beside you.

I have seen the very hands and feet of Christ in the small enduring acts of faithfulness of people committed to walking along side of each other.

I don’t know if the theology I was taught there was good or bad. I can’t tell you a specific Sunday School lesson I ever heard there. But I can tell you that my 6th grade Sunday School teacher Mrs. Martin remembered my birthday until I was into my 20’s. I cannot think of a sacred moment in my life that someone from that church has not been present in some way with me or with my family.

When my children are in their 40’s, I hope that they too will recite a litany of steady acts of faithfulness that fleshed out to them the ministry of Jesus among them, and that they will see their own hands as a part of that body. I hope that in the baking of Goatwalker brownies month after month, of gathering bulletins after church for recycling, writing letters to Chuck, in carrying meals to someone who needs them they will see those as moments when they had the opportunity to “be church”, not just attend it. And when my soul slips to glory and the ham is passed, I hope they will say, “THIS is Church”.


By Sue, who is very nearly perfect

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Fuzzy Bear and Friends

Fuzzy Bear and Friends
Originally uploaded by jeffstreet1.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Two Types of Religion, Part I

Authoritarian Religion

Attending the "Freedom and Faith" Rally at Central Presbyterian Church on Sunday 25 April '05 and the vigil in front of Highview Baptist, and then reading excerpts of remarks from the speakers at "Justice Sunday" in the paper on Monday, I realized again that religious faith comes in two very broad types. The terms "liberal" and "conservative" are not all that helpful here and so I won't use them. Instead, I will contrast authoritarian religion with prophetic-liberating faith. I am most familiar with the way these types play out in Christianity, but I think I see these rival forms in all the major religions--at least as far as I am familiar with them. Let me contrast these rival forms of religion more thoroughly.

Authoritarian religion is hierarchical in its institutional form--even if the tradition was for a low-church, laity-centered polity. Power flows from the top down--and doesn't flow very far. It is concerned with rules and regulations to a very high degree, seeing its sacred Scriptures primarily as a rulebook. Its ethics are focused on purity concerns, dividing the righteous from the wicked very sharply. With control and purity as the bywords, sexual issues take center stage in ethical concern: women are relegated to lesser status, and those whose sexual orientation doesn't fit a very narrow "norm" are objects of revulsion, discrimination, and fear.

By nature, this form of religion is exclusionary. Orthodoxy ("right teaching") is defined very narrowly. Differences of opinion are tolerated, if at all, on only a very narrow range of topics and only within a small degree. Thus, adherents in an authoritarian religion will have impassioned debates over distinctions that outsiders have a hard time telling apart.

No matter how much the official doctrine of this form of religion speaks of "grace," "mercy," "forgiveness," or "eternal security," the underlying ethos is one of fear: fear of heresy, fear of breaking the rules, fear of science, fear of social change, fear of other religions, fear of forms of its own religion which are NOT authoritarian, fear of secularism, fear--ultimately--of God. (A person I know who holds to this form of religion has created clothing with the slogan, "I Fear God" and cannot figure out why they won't sell!)

It is clear to me that the U.S. Religious Right, composed of Protestant Fundamentalists and the far-right fringe of U.S. Catholics, is a form of authoritarian religion. That is why its political allies are profoundly anti-democratic and engage in the politics of fear and secrecy. A democratic republic with separation of powers, checks and balances, real participation by the people is too messy. So, more and more power is invested in the Executive, laws are changed to allow more secret decisions, the legislature is turned into a rubber stamp for the Executive, and steps are taken to undermine an independent judiciary. The forms of voting are still allowed, although all kinds of tricks are used to disenfranchise groups likely to vote for another agenda. But real power is invested in plutocratic oligarchy.

Media consolidation erodes that check on power concentration as well. Every time a speed bump on the road to total domination is met, the masses of true believers in the dominant form of authoritarian religion (the "Christian" Right in this case) are mobilized through a manufactured threat (fear again). Though they control most forms of public life, they constantly are told that they are persecuted victims who MUST rise up and defeat law x or pass law y in order to avoid the downfall of civilization or the end of the world. Objectively, they hold more power than any other group in the nation, but one would never know that to hear the language of victimization, discrimination, and persecution which characterizes their discourse.


By Michael the Leveller. But Wait! There's more to come!


Originally uploaded by jeffstreet1.

Two Types of Religion, Part II

Prophetic-Liberating Faith

By contrast, prophetic-liberating faith is non-hierarchical, striving for a discipleship of equals and servant leadership. Power is shared widely and tends to flow from the people to leaders. It may have a place for rules, but they are hardly the center of its understanding of the life of faith.

Sacred Scriptures are not seen primarily as rulebooks, but as visions of the character of God and God's purposes in the world--at least in monotheistic religions. The ethics of this type of faith redefines purity and holiness in terms of "compassionate justice" for the vulnerable, marginalized, or powerless.

By its nature, this type of faith is inclusive--it may warn of judgment against those who are violent or unjust to the powerless, but it seeks the redemption even of the oppressor. Orthopraxy ("right practice") takes precedence over orthodoxy and both are defined in terms that allow for disagreements, dialogue, disputes, uncertainties, and ambiguity. The focus of prophetic-liberating faith is on justice for the neighbor, not on the righteousness of one's self. Its major concerns are compassion, justice, peacemaking, the common good, care for the creation, empowering others. Sexual issues are not ignored, but do not dominate ethical concern. Even then, what counts is justice, right-relatedness, dignity, covenant faithfulness, and nonviolence in sexual matters, not purity concerns. The underlying ethos is not fear but joy--the joy of empowered service.

When this form of religion enters the political sphere, it does so to promote the common good. It may be motivated by the particularities of its own faith, but it offers arguments that can be understood by those of other faiths or no faith. It seeks to respect the adversary, no matter how much it must denounce particular actions, policies, attitudes, etc.

This form of religion has been marginalized in recent decades in the U.S., but it is clear that this was the form of religion which motivated the abolitionists, the first generation feminists and suffragists, the Social Gospel, the Catholic Worker movement, the church-based Black Freedom ("Civil Rights") movement, the Liberation theologies of Latin America with the Base Communities, the church-based struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and much of the gospel-motivated peace movement.

It is easier to motivate people by fear than hope in the short run. Thus, today, authoritarian religion is dominant in the U.S.--if not in numbers of adherents, surely in social and political power. But people grow tired of fear mongers and tyrants, even religious tyrants. Theocracies never last.

I believe there is a hunger abroad in the land today for prophetic-liberating faith. If we work harder to paint a vision justice, compassion, creation-care, and peacemaking, motivated by a spirituality of nonviolence, I think that people will respond. The authoritarian religious tyrants and their political allies will begin to lose influence. Of course, this means that people who hold to prophetic-liberating faith will have to share it, to get over their squeamishness about evangelism (rooted in the bad models they've seen from the authoritarian types) and bear witness to their alternative spirituality at every opportunity.

An African-American Pentecostal student at a Mennonite college was full of praise for the faculty and students and the way they lived their faith in service. Asked if he had any criticism at all, he responded, "I wish they would preach what they practice more!" Let us proclaim and practice a prophetic-liberating faith--the world is hungry for it.


By Michael the Leveller, who sometimes blows us away with brilliance

Friday, May 06, 2005

In Glorious Living color!

Originally uploaded by jeffstreet1.

Talkin' 'bout a revolution

I’ve been in revolt against the church since I was a teenager.

At the time, I thought it was rebellion against my strict upbringing. It is only now in hindsight that I understand I was reacting to the dissidence that I felt - the difference between the kind, loving god I knew in my heart and my church’s jealous, angry warrior god who was harshly judgmental. Not only was this warrior god a white male, he allowed only white men to be leaders and he allowed only male-centered language.

Not only was I ignored and marginalized, I was the also the cause of original sin. And I knew even as a girl that I couldn’t tolerate the unfairness of it. So I kept the rage inside of me. But when I was old enough to leave, I did. I left for 20 years.

I started attending church again in the 90’s. The first person I heard preach was a woman. Not only a woman but a lesbian with a rainbow stole. And I thought… “My, how things have changed.” I also sobbed all the way through the sermon. The years of revolting melted away and I realized I had come home, to a god who loved me no matter what.

As I kept going back to church, I realized more things had changed than who was in the pulpit. Words were used to describe god that I had never head before. Words like she. Mother-god. Creator-god. When I first heard this language, I thought I was wrong. Everyone knows god is male. But as I began to feel included, I began to accept the language, then cherish it. Now it seems wrong to me to hear god described as only male.

The past 3 or 4 years, I have not been mindlessly revolting but birthing a revolution within myself in learning new ways of knowing god. The most important part of this journey for me is that I haven’t had to do it alone. I’ve done this in the company of extraordinary women – some of whom are here today. They have coached me and learned with me and cried with me. Their support means everything to me.

And the new ways of knowing god I’ve found? I’ve learned about the Wisdom Goddess, Sophia, who Proverbs says was present with god at creation… I’ve learned images in Taoism that know god simply as The Way… the wildness of the creator god that I learned about at our retreat… our Lady of Chains, the Black Madonna… the essence of the spirit of god named by the Hebrew people as Ruach or like the wind… and the god who exceeds the bounds of our knowledge and imagination, known simply as I Am…

There are those of you out there who may not see yourself in the god portrayed by the dominant culture. It may be because of your skin color or because you’re a woman. It may be because you’re disabled or gay. It may be because you’re a person of peace.

I invite you to birth a revolution with me. It will be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done. But revolution is hard work. And when you’re floundering and feel like you’re falling with nothing to hold onto, remember to go back to the god within your heart. The god within you will show you the way.

By Sammie Lambert, our own revolution momma

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Danger Kitty

Danger Kitty
Originally uploaded by jeffstreet1.

Vernon Easterhare Declares:

To stroke the fur of my kitty and know that I help keep her alive feels like prayer to Jesus in my wee hovel, which is by choice and design the least pretentious I can make of inner-city apartment living in Louisville. But see, me and Kitty Tifla every day have devoted loving: by mutual choosing and signals reciprocally-begun, my little baby jumps atop my typing table for petting and petting and petting.

This loving will go on only so long as Tifla wants loving; she is not usually satisfied unless she gets stroked two hours or more. All the while – I hope this does not seem morbid – in spirit it is done in lightness and joy – I tell my little girl pet that someday-she-will-die-and-someday-Vernon-will-die and she will be able to visit Vernon in people-heaven and Vernon will be able to visit her in pet-heaven and she will have fun with all the saint pets in all heavens forever!

Let us posit that here I was prophetic, that the Burden and Word of Lady Jahweh presses my utterance; I am not sure how much I understand what I just said above, let alone Kitty Tifla. But I do know that she knows that the utmost of priority of priorities is to love as much as possible in this life!

This amounts to a version of Pascal's Bet, but for the critters: If there ain't no pet heaven, then Kitty Tifla just had some nice words uttered to her as she was petted, then she dies; but if a really really nice God has pet heaven, so much the more felicitous – both for the pets and for their doting owners.

Jesus wanted me to say this. He put me up to it in holy mischief. Don't argue with me, argue with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit! There is a pet heaven, or so my Burden unburdens me to say, in a pure and merry spirit. For I cannot see otherwise than that God will judge humankind on its treatment of animals (and the natural world), a subject worthy but not invoked by the Law or Prophets directly. Somebody has to prophesy for the innocent little pets, so it might as well be Vernon, singing, singing, singing.

by Vernon Easterhare or, as some of us like to call him, Saint Vernon, patron saint of the pets

Monday, May 02, 2005

Beautiful Dreamer

Beautiful Dreamer
Originally uploaded by jeffstreet1.

Perfect love is this...

Long ago, in my early years of teaching first grade, I had a little girl named Sheila in my class. On the very first day of her life that she ever came to school (this was before there were kindergartens in public schools) her mother dropped her off at my classroom door. When Sheila went home that day, she discovered that her mother had left the family for good. As far as I know, Sheila did not hear from her mother again.

Of course, Sheila was crushed, devastated, and also feeling unbearably guilty, because as her father later told me, he had warned Sheila repeatedly that her mother would leave if she, Sheila, kept crying. The second day of school, then, Sheila's father brought her to my door and she was crying. I had no help. There were no school counselors in those days. So, I did the only thing I could think of. I sat in my chair with Sheila in my lap and my arms around her. I conducted my class from that chair for an hour or two that day and for many, many weeks afterward, waiting an hour or so each day for Sheila to become calm enough to get down from my lap.

Gradually, through the year, Sheila began to heal. At the end of the year, she and her father moved, and I never heard from them again. I don't recall either of them saying a word of thanks – and no wonder, they were in deep pain. I thought of Sheila only occasionally.

Then, perhaps twenty years later, I attended a funeral in the community where I had taught. At the funeral home, a middle-aged woman I did not recognize came up to me. She said, “My daughter Nancy was in your first grade class many years ago.”

I remembered Nancy, as I did many of my students. Nancy's mother continued. “Nancy is a teacher now. A good one. You know, Nancy told us again and again that she wanted to be a teacher just like you, Mrs. Schneider, because she remembered how you held a crying little girl in your arms day after day, and she loved your kindness.”

That single affirmation warms me still today.


By Janet Schneider, who is the teacher we all wished we had