Straightening Our Tie

Ancient Testimony - Numbers 13:17-23

January 09, 2011

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Like many of you, I was a college student in the Sixties, innocent as a slip and unwise in the ways of the world.  I actually showed up at college with ironed blouses on hangers, skirts with equal press, and stockings, thinking “COLLEGE” was such a big deal that you ought to dress up for it.  I soon realized everybody else was wearing T-shirts and jeans, and I regularized my sartorial behavior.  So did my equally confused classmates.  On one occasion, a very nerdy guy named Michael Hobor walked into Musselman Library, a stately building with architectural oomph, wearing shorts.  Mrs. Smoke, the Senior Librarian, walked up to him in the kind of huff and puff only Mrs. Smoke could pull off, she with her boobs belted, and said, hands on fulsome hips, “Mr. Hobor, we are not a beach.”  The more marijuana we smoked during those heady years, the more times we would repeat to each other, with growing enthusiasm for our precociousness and placelessness, “Mr. Hobor, we are not a beach.”

Here at Judson, we are also trying to get our clothes and identity right.  We are trying to look neither like giants nor like grasshoppers, in the terms of the biblical text for today, but instead to look like regulars.  What is a regular?  A regular is one who fits in.  A regular is one who is not intimidated by the surrounding culture.  A regular belongs.  Regular people, Caleb tells us, deserve and receive the Promised Land.  I’ve been here five years and almost know what I should wear around here.  But only almost.  Our best Judson conversation is who is on the inside and who isn’t.  Permit me to say that I still feel like an outsider—and have learned to care less and less about that.  We are a church, not a beach.  A beach—like Mrs. Smoke’s library—has sartorial outsiders and insiders; a church doesn’t.  Everybody is an irregular here—and that is our passport to the inside.

Clothing permeates our language around here.  The shorthand that the Judson board uses for our current goal is that we want to straighten our tie.  We want our building and our behavior to be friendlier to the community.  We want to be alive in the world of the Web and to have a website that wears jeans and t-shirts.  As you and I conclude five years as pastor and people and enter a new phase with a new leadership team (hooray, Michael!), I need to look back just a little, look forward just a little, and issue some appreciations.  I really do think that the primary spiritual problem is the appreciation deficit disorder—and I came here to change that.  I said that I would provide spiritual nurture for public capacity; not either, but both.  It turns out that straightening our tie is a worthy goal, providing deeper nurture and stronger capacity.  The theology for straightening our tie can be simply said, in the words of a famous organizer, “Impotence corrupts and absolute impotence corrupts absolutely.”  Yes.  It is impotence more than power that corrupts, and God wants people like us to have power and institutional health. We are to get power so we can give it away.  We are for power for the people, as we would have said in college.  We want power taken away from the guns and power returned to the land and the people.

I daresay none of us is that surprised by the shooting in Arizona.  We have majored these five years in hating hate and loving love, whether it be hate against immigrants or queers or Muslims.  We were astonished at the hate against a man like Jean—and opposed it with all we had.  That emphasis has involved us in a good, long look at the hate that has dominated the first decade of this 21st century.  Even President Obama will have to look long and hard today at his refusal to challenge the NRA.  Sarah Palin had Congresswoman Giffords on her “target” list.  She was not talking about the department store.  One of Giffords’ opponents used gun imagery in his literature when he ran against her.  Can we really be surprised that language releases bullets? Maybe President Obama will have to reconsider his lack of challenge to the NRA, the way our nation supplies the guns for the ongoing drug war in Mexico, the way we can’t seem to give up our love affair with the bullet as a solution to human problems.

Flannery O’Connor said, “Writers should never be afraid of staring.”  She meant that we could look long at words and see that their meanings matter.  Target someone and then you can get freedom to kill him or her. Declare you are not a beach and make a fool of yourself.  As pastor and people, we have been staring at each other—I, at you, and you, at me.  When I stare at you, I see grasshoppers and giants becoming regulars in the Promised Land and its many picnics and parties.  I see us straightening our tie, institutionally and communally, as a sign of power and our intention to get power.  I see a deepening institutional capacity and a little more water in some of our wells.  My well has surely filled here, even though I remain more grasshopper than giant in my hope for the wider movements with which we identify. 

Yes, we have to talk about President Obama.  No, we have not stopped the hate.  Nor have we consented to it.  Nor has our beleaguered president.  President Obama is only in the middle of his first term—and yes, I probably do compare myself to him, ever so slightly.  I hop on his grass.  Like him, I am a leader asked to lead people who imagine themselves as Not Really Promised Land Material.  I am also a first.  When I am on the road, I watch a lot of Fox News.  This week I couldn’t help but be impressed with how lachrymose the new speaker of the house is: John Boehner has now wept in public three times.  The first time was caused by his love of his own story, a rags to riches one that does deserve respect but not while he is actively taking away the chance to do the same from so many others.  As a leader I watch him enjoy the privilege of weeping and imagine what would have happened to Nancy Pelosi had she done the same thing.  As your first woman senior minister in one hundred years, and probably not your last, I have learned a lot about the subtle versions of sexism.  On the one hand, we are the least sexist of institutions, with women having power all over the place; on the other hand, we still don’t have the freedom to weep.  Congressman Boehner cries at the drop of a hat, especially about himself; Nancy Pelosi didn’t dare.  At Judson, we have straightened our tie more than we have changed the world and its ways.  We have put water in our own wells more than we have challenged the giants who think they deserve and own the Promised Land.  The point of straightening one’s tie is not just to straighten one’s tie and to look good on the beach.  We are a church and not a beach.

Yes, we have straightened our tie, online and off-line, and put signs on the walls of our buildings, letting people know we are here.  We even have nametags, which let the giants know we grasshoppers are here.  Also, we have experienced generational change and it has neither enthralled us nor divided us.  This is an accomplishment.  We have quarreled about whether we are a church in the old way or a church in a new way, and we have mostly agreed that we are fundamentally a church and that Jesus matters to us.  We remain tied as well to a fierce independence of thought and theology, practice and purpose.  We have not become afraid of quarreling but actually enjoy it.  We moved back into our whole building and developed better relationships with NYU, which university is now building a spiritual life center across the way from us, which center will thrust us into a much to be desired ecumenicity.

Personally, in this short time, a drunk driver in Tucson failed to kill me, while trying, and you took good care of me.  I lost a cat that was with me for seventeen years.  One of my sons got married, right here, with the Red Berets at the door; another got engaged.  My daughter went to jail with me over Guantanamo.  It was her first but not her last visit.  A grandson named Caleb was born to our family… and he, like the biblical one, is in charge of reminding us we can still “take” the Promised Land.  We grasshoppers receive glimpses of the Promised Land all the time, in Harry’s glitter-mobile or the way we held each other after Mary Ellen’s and Susan’s and Wendell’s—and more—deaths.  Anonymous and named contributors kept our budget alive and helped us manage a growth in membership, which surprised us all.

We have enjoyed annual retreats at a lakeside in Connecticut.  We asked each other questions: Why were you named the way you were?  What makes your heart sing?  Rachel was baptized and everybody jumped in the lake.  There was also the unfortunate if remarkable disrobing of our senior administrator.  By the way, we don’t have a junior administrator.  We may have decided we are a church and not a beach but that doesn’t keep us from the occasional swim, with or without our ties or slips or t-shirts or jeans on.  The congregation that skinny-dips together stays together.  We are only sort of not a beach.

Like Obama, I have a primary obligation, which is to state over and over—to over communicate—what it is we are doing.  Today, I have tried again.  I came saying my purpose was similar to your agenda: I wanted to do spiritual nurture for public capacity.  That nugget contained a social and theological analysis.  We were not drawing on deep enough spiritual wells at Judson.  Like most of the American left, we were acting like grasshoppers in a field of giants. We have yet to make a dent in racism or sexism or economic disparity, internally or externally.  Forgive the inside language, but here it comes: basically, Howard always had Arlene and I didn’t.  Nor do I know how to have an Arlene.  I am an Arlene.  Also, in the various movements in New York City, I was often put in charge of housekeeping, fundraising and the like. In this next phase I’d like to share leadership of all kinds with Michael, the housekeeping and the barn raisings, the tie straightening and the slip showing.  I’d like to make sure we straighten our tie on behalf of letting our slips show; that we have institutional health so that we have something serious to risk in the world, against the guns, for the love.  I’d also like to see the women wearing more ties and the men wearing more slips.  I’d like gender and leadership to mix itself up even more around here.  I’d personally like to become even more queer, more outside, more irregular, while enjoying your friendship.

We progressive people of faith have still not faced how powerless we are and our movement is.   Here at Judson, we have hung onto a rope together, with style and vigor and intention.  We are spiritually stronger and politically weaker.  My objective with you is power broadened and spiritually sustained.  I want the power so we can spread it around, in the name of Jesus, in the way he would do it. 

I wore this shawl in my last interview with the search committee and it is not really that tattered at all.  And by the way, I don’t really know what’s going to happen next.  Neither do you.  All we know is that we will do what we do together, as outsiders in a place where there are no insiders, as grasshoppers in a land of giants.  We are not a beach.  We are a church.


May I issue some appreciations?  They won’t be enough and they will miss some people.

Keen, thank you for your wisdom.

Doris, thank you for your return to Judson, after so many years.

Warren, thank you for endless cooking, for superb food, for living with a woman whose life is all Judson all the time… and for being like Joanna Steinberg, an unlikely friend, who is irregular like the rest of us here.

Ed, thank you for being the heart of the pastor/parish relationship.

Holly, thank you for being the one who called me that day in Connecticut as I was boarding the ferry to see a friend and saying, “We are calling you to be our Senior Minister.”

Ken Kidd, so new here, as one of us imperfect people, and making such a large contribution to Judson in a very short time. Thank you.

Community Ministers all rise.  Board, all rise.  Former board members: you, too.  Thank you, all.

All three moderators in my time, thank you for all the breakfast meetings.

Michael Conley, thank you.

Staff: not here, off skinny dipping somewhere…

Roland, who is retiring irregularly, as I am taking a Sabbatical irregularly.  You just can’t get good help any more.

Choir: Brava.

Grace Goodman, Thank you for being so consistently obnoxious and critical and clear—and for being such a good friend to me.

Ruby, thank you for knowing how to dress, unlike the rest of these schlubs.

Irene and Clover, thank you for managing our archives.

Kim, thank you for leading us in bleach kits.

Jack, thank you for loving Judson so much.

Mary, thank you for leading us to nametags!


Benediction:  We are at the end of Phase One together and at the beginning of Phase Two.  Let us enjoy the time together and the time apart.  The service begins here.

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