Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Our church coffee house, the Urban Goatwalker, celebrated 20 years of ministry last Saturday. This video are some very few of the many amazing highlights of last Saturday's celebration.

The Goatwalker is an open mic coffee house in downtown Louisville that has been open the second Saturday of each month without fail for 20 years now. The Goatwalker is open to all, but was intended as a place of refuge, dignity and celebration especially for our more marginalized brothers and sisters. The idea was that it would be a place where the homeless, the mentally ill and others who are often actively NOT wanted, ARE wanted. They are invited in, cherished, treated as honored guests, and, along with anyone else, can freely order coffee, lemonade, home made brownies, cookies or other treats.

All our visitors are also invited, if they so choose, to take the stage and perform a song, a poem, tell a story and otherwise share something meaningful to them. And share, we do. The most powerful songs, poems, dancing and other performances come from our visitors and every performer is cheered and hurrah-ed for the treasures they share.

The Goatwalker team didn't want this to be a pity/charity place, where "WE do-gooders" do something for THOSE "poor, pitifuls," but where we are all on equal footing, able to order food and drinks, able to share, able to help, able to perform. And mostly, that is what happens.

God's kingdom come, God's will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

While this might sometimes lead to some strange and edgy moments, it is mostly divine, just divine. I hope the video could give you a taste of that.

* As an aside, while this was designed to be a safe place to share together primarily for our marginalized brothers and sisters, it has become a safe place for many others. Our church's children, for instance, from pretty early ages, begin to want to get up and sing, or tell a joke, or even to take a chance on learning a new instrument - a guitar, a ukulele, a banjo, dulcimer, mandolin, fiddle, cello, drums... - and share at the Urban Goatwalker. As a result, we have an amazingly talented and compassionate set of children, youth and, now, young adults in our midst. They also are frequently our waiters and waitresses and other helpers.

My son and his elder band-mate buddy both were born roughly the same time as the Goatwalker and have grown up in that context. I very much attribute their compassionate and passionate song-writing and music-playing largely to exposure to the Urban Goatwalker and the witness of our more marginalized friends, along with the adults in church who have freely shared music and ideas with them over the years.

The whole idea of sharing freely has some amazing and sometimes unexpected side effects.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Happy Twentieth Birthday, GW!

Goatwalker Candle by paynehollow
Goatwalker Candle, a photo by paynehollow on Flickr.

Our church just celebrated the 20th anniversary of an open mic coffee house we hold for everyone, but especially our homeless, mentally ill and otherwise marginalized friends. Yesterday’s sermon celebrated that ministry, and for that reason and simply because it was such a very good and topical sermon, I’m posting it here in its entirety…

Because we are so far removed from Jesus’ culture, we often miss the real impact of the stories that we read. We read scriptures in a personalistic way, and don’t see the political or the social implications. And thus we see Jesus as such a nice guy that we wonder how anyone could kill him?!

The temptation is to read this morning’s story in the same way. It’s a lovely story, really. Jesus is moved with compassion for this poor leper, and he reaches out, touches him, and heals him. Then sends him on his merry way to visit the priests, in keeping with the Jewish laws.

Except that what we don’t realize is that this story is NOT about gentle Jesus meek and mild healing a leper, this story is about angry Jesus – while some of the ancient texts say moved by pity, or compassion, others say, moved by anger (orgistheis), and that is certainly in keeping with the anger that he shows a little later on in the passage. This story is about angry Jesus taking on the oppressive systems of his day, deliberately breaking the laws of his day.

In Jesus’ day, the primary paradigm that shaped his Jewish social world was: Be holy as God is holy. That was the rule of the day, the lens through which the Jews interpreted their world.

Hundreds of years before, when the Jewish people had been hauled off to Babylon, they were faced with the crisis of being assimilated, sucked up, into a foreign culture. You remember the story of Daniel, who refused to eat the diet of the empire, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who refused to bow down to the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar, the Psalmist who sat down by the waters of Babylon weeping, refusing to sing for captors. “How can I sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” he cried.

It was a full blown crisis for the people of Israel. Not only had they been forcibly removed from their homes, they were now, bit by bit and day by day, being asked to give up who they were. And it was out of that experience that the Jewish people began to interpret the Torah, in a way that stressed, above all, God’s holiness, God’s set-apartness, thus their holiness, their set-apartness as God’s people. It was during that time that the sections of the law which emphasized separation and purity became dominant. This emphasis was so severe, in fact, that you may recall that it was during that time that Ezra instructed the Jews to put away (divorce, abandon) their foreign wives and children.

Hundreds of years later, Jesus’ society, which was now facing the threat of being assimilated into Roman culture, was structured according to that interpretation. The purity system or the politics of holiness, as it is now called, was one of the ways that the Jewish people coped. It kept them separate from everyone else. But it also kept them separate from one another by establishing a spectrum of people ranging from the pure to varying degrees of purity to people on the margin to the radically impure (Borg). People were determined to be pure or impure according to some extent on birth. The priests and Levites, who were hereditary classes, came first, followed by Israelites, followed by converts, and on down the line.

But one’s degree of purity or impurity also depended on behavior. Those who lived according to the purity codes were seen as pure. And there were, in fact, at least two renewal movements in Jesus’ day in which people sought to become even purer. The Essenes, who believed that the only way to be pure was to remove themselves from the culture, and who lived in the desert, and the Pharisees, who tried to maintain strict codes of purity within the culture. Those who didn’t or couldn’t maintain these purity codes were seen as outcasts. And of course, the outcasts included occupational groups such as tax collectors and shepherds.

One’s degree of purity or impurity also depended on physical wholeness. The people who were not whole, the maimed, the chronically ill, lepers, eunuchs, etc., were impure.

Also, one’s degree of purity or impurity was associated with economic class. While it was certainly possible for a rich person to be impure and a poor person to be pure, it was generally believed that rich people were rich because they had been blessed by God and that poor people were poor, or that sick people were sick, etc., because they had not lived rightly, and were thus not blessed by God. (Which is why Jesus’ statement that God makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust is so remarkable.)

And, it was almost impossible for a poor person to observe the rigid purity laws.

Purity and impurity were also associated with the contrast between male and female. Generally speaking, men in their natural state were thought to be more pure than women. And, of course, purity and impurity was also attached to whether one was a Jew or a Gentile.

The purity system had become the political system, and it worked for those who were in power. It kept them rich. For example, farmers were required to tithe part of their yearly crop to the priests and the Levites. If they did not, then their food would be considered unclean, and no one would buy it. Another example, before a leper could be proclaimed clean, he or she would have to bring in a rather hefty amount of offerings to the priest, who could then do the necessary healing rituals. So the concept of holiness had become the politics of holiness, and in fact, the economics of holiness. The powers were highly invested in keeping the status quo, and the best way to do that was to keep everybody in their place.

Okay, that was Jesus’ culture. And we need to know and understand that in order to truly understand the gospels. For example, Jesus’ story about the good Samaritan, with which we’re all so familiar, was an attack on the holiness code. The Levite and the priest passed the man by not because they were particularly apathetic or hateful, but because they were not, according to the holiness code, allowed to touch a dead person, and they couldn’t tell if the man, who is described as ‘half-dead,’ was dead or not. The Samaritan, who is radically impure, comes by, acts out of compassion, not purity, but compassion, and is praised for his actions.

And Jesus was not just attacking the holiness code in this story, he was teaching a whole new one, to be compassionate as God is compassionate (Luke 6:36). He even uses the same formula. Remember, the paradigm of the day was, Be holy as God is holy. But Jesus comes teaching, Be compassionate as God is compassionate. And he doesn’t just teach it, he does it.


Happy Twentieth Birthday, GW!

“If you choose, you can make me clean,” says the leper, and you can imagine that his heart is in his mouth.

“If you choose, you can make me clean,” says the leper, and what he’s asking Jesus to do is something that the priests have refused to do, what he’s asking Jesus to do is to declare him clean in the Levitical sense. What he’s asking Jesus to do is to restore him to his family, to restore him to his livelihood, to restore him to his community, to restore to him his dignity and his life.

“If you choose, you can declare me clean,” and his heart is pounding so hard that he knows that Jesus can hear it, and the blood is rushing to his head, and Jesus is looking at him, knowing how hard his heart is pounding, knowing how desperate he is to be restored, knowing how vile and how corrupt this system of purity has become, knowing, according to Ched Myers, who says that that’s the only way that Jesus’ anger makes sense here, that he’s been to the priests already, and that they’ve denied him his bill of health, his access to his family, to home, to livelihood, to everyone and everything that a person would want to live for, and as Jesus stands there looking at him, he is moved with anger at the systems that have cast this man out like so much garbage, Jesus is moved with anger, and he reaches out, and he knows as he reaches out that he is, by Jewish law, not allowed to touch the man, that in touching the man, he will be viewed as unclean, too, and he knows as he reaches out, that if he proclaims this man clean, that he will be overstepping his bounds, usurping the carefully guarded authority of the priests, who according to the Torah are the only ones who can declare a leper clean, even if the priest is an imbecile, the teachings say, it must be the priest that declares the leper clean, and Jesus, moved with anger, reaches out his hand and touches the man, and says to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

And immediately the man is made clean. At Jesus’ touch, at Jesus’ word, the man is proclaimed and made clean. But Jesus is still angry. In fact, Mark says that he snorts with indignation. Jesus is still angry at the systems that have oppressed this man for so long, and he says to man, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, show them what I’ve done, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a witness against them. They would not touch you, they would not proclaim you whole, they would not give you back your life. You go and tell them, you go and show them what I’ve done.”

Saul Alinsky, who is one of the most famous community organizers of all times, says in his book, Rules for Radicals, that the job of the organizer is to maneuver and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as a ‘dangerous enemy.’ The word ‘enemy’ is sufficient to put the organizer on the side of the people, to identify him with the ‘Have-Nots…’

And then Jesus, because he himself was considered to be unclean after touching the man, and more importantly, because in taking a stab at the authorities of his day he had put himself in danger, could not go into a town openly, but had to stay out in the country, where people came to him, where the Have-Nots came to him from every quarter.

Jesus knew what he was getting into. “If you choose,” said the leper with his heart in his mouth, “if you choose…” and Jesus did choose. He chose, not just to heal the leper, which he could have done at a safe distance, as he did in the story in Luke, but to confront head on the purity laws, and thus, the keepers of the purity laws, the priests. He’s already confronted the scribes, and now he’s confronting the priests.

Twenty years ago a group of folks who had grown up under a different, but in some ways, similar, holiness code, and that’s the Southern Baptist holiness code, that can be summed up, perhaps, with this little rhyme:

Don’t smoke or drink or chew, or
hang with those who do…

…they had a vision of a place where people from all walks of life could come together on equal ground. They didn’t want another place where the haves would serve the have nots, no, they wanted a place where everyone would be served equally, and so they decided that everything would be free for everybody. They didn’t want a place where those with talent would perform for those without talent. No, they wanted a place where everyone could have a chance to shine, and so they decided to do an open mic.

They also decided to clap like crazy whenever anybody did anything, or maybe they didn’t decide it, but they sure did it, and people who never in a million years would have thought that they’d ever read a poem or sing a song found themselves up there on stage being treasured, being listened to, being loved.

They had this vision, and they made it work, and now it’s worked for 20 years. 20 years of faithfulness, 20 years of radical inclusivity, 20 years of making coffee and washing dishes, 20 years of waiting tables, 20 years of listening and performing, 20 years of pulling down the walls.

I remember our very first Urban Goatwalker Coffeehouse. Robert and I sat with a couple who was homeless, and the woman rubbed the tablecloth between her fingers and looked at the candle on the table and looked around the room and said, with reverence in her voice, this is really nice.

After all these years, I still feel the reverence of this place where people come together on equal ground, and find healing.

“If you choose, you can heal me,” says the man.

“If you choose,” says this broken, needy, desperate, heart in its mouth world, “you can heal me.” And you warm up the coffeepot and you pull out the tablecloths and you put on our aprons, and you do choose.

Thanks be to God.