First shall be last and last shall be first
Free Community Church
Rev Miak Siew
21 September 2014
First shall be last and last shall be first
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.
He prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.
And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."
And the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?"
Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush.
But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered.
When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, "It is better for me to die than to live."
But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die."
Then the LORD said, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.
And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.
After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.
When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.
When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same.
And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?'
They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.'
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.'
When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.
Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,
saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.'
But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.
Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?'
So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Patheos community here.
Patheos has invited a number of us to write an end-of-summer post about what we find “most critical within our tradition” today (italics added), “the issue of greatest import.”
My tradition is Christianity – especially in its American form. I have been both all of my life. The most critical issue within American Christianity today as I see it? The co-optation of its most publicly visible face by an individualistic, self-oriented, exclusivist and entrepreneurial form of Christianity.
Individualistic: the Christian life is primarily about where we as individuals will spend eternity – heaven or hell. Or, in the prosperity gospel, how our lives as individuals will turn out in this life. In either case, what matters most are what we believe and how we behave as individuals.
Self-oriented: this is a direct and intrinsic corollary of the previous point. Christianity is about the eternal preservation of the self. Or the well-being of the self in this life. Or both.
Exclusivist: Christianity is the only way. That’s why people need to be Christian. Salvation – whether in the next world or this world – comes only through Jesus. That’s our product.
Entrepreneurial: the best-known American clergy today are those with mega-churches and/or television ministries. Most started their ministries themselves or inherited them from a charismatic founder. Many of them (most?) have not had a serious and sustained theological education. Many (most?) have not been ordained by a “brand-name” denomination. Entrepreneurial clergy succeed because they read the market well. And the market is seldom the way of Jesus.
This form of Christianity dominates Christian television and radio in America today. It is highly visible politically in the issues of “the Christian Right.” They are mostly about individual behavior, especially sexual behavior: abstinence teaching in sex education classes, no abortion, sometimes opposition to contraception, and of course defense of “traditional marriage.”
Beyond sexuality, the emphasis on individualism often leads these Christians to disregard and disparage “the common good” – as if “the common good” – what’s good for all of us and not just for a few of us – were a socialist or communist notion and not a biblical emphasis.
Also beyond sexuality: these Christians are most likely to support the use of overwhelming military power to counter any perceived threat to the United States. They were the demographic group with the highest approval (84%) of launching – starting – the war in Iraq in 2003. Most of them also unconditionally support the use of Israeli military power in Gaza and more broadly to control Palestinians living on what was once their land.
If the most public form of American Christianity were Christianity, I could not be Christian. I have a friend who frequently asks me, “How can you be Christian?!?!” I tell him: “I know that I live in the belly of the beast – and I still want to try to change the beast.”
What is at stake is what might be called “the soul” or “heart of Christianity.” Is it about my doing well in this life and/or the next? Or about so much more? For me, it is about so much more. For it to be less than that would be a betrayal.
First and foremost, I want to start by saying thank you. Thank you to all of you who have come together to make Amplify a success – to the people leading the worship, the technical crew, the welcome team, the ops team, the catering team, the Amplify connect leaders and all of you who participated. It is no longer just in theory of what we can do when we come together – we have seen the realization of the beloved community in action. We have come together and demonstrated something as a community. The question is this – what’s next FCC?
I will just summarize what I have learned from the three esteemed speakers this weekend –
1. We need to realize that we are building a movement and not a monument. Jesus built a movement. But it settled and fossilized into an inflexible structure that is about preserving the status quo and tradition.
2. We need to realize what our calling is. Are we just called to be just another Christian church just done gay? Are we just building a replica of the church we came out of, just that it welcomes LGBT people?
3. To do what we need to do we need to are, like what Rev Elder Darlene Garner so eloquently put – are we a spiritual emergency room that people go to get healed, and then realized that there is no space for healed people, they no longer stay. Or are we a spiritual fitness center, spiritual gym where we come to exercise and build up our spiritual strength to do what we are called to do as the Body of Christ? Yes, that still means we serve those who seek healing, and reconciliation and come for the “physiotherapy.”
We will remain that space that provides people struggling to come to terms with their faith and sexuality. We will remain the space that welcomes and embraces diversity. But I don’t think that is all we are called to do.
I think we have a special calling.
We need to realize that we are in a special position to be part of another Reformation of the church to make it relevant to the times. To keep the church grounded. We, on the margins, are the ones who push the envelope of what church can be. We can see the churches in Western Europe. Many of them are more a tourist attraction than a church.
But we can be like Jonah. We can run away from our call. We can choose not to move out of our comfort zone. We can be unwilling to serve those we are called to serve. We can get angry because God didn’t do what we expected God to do. We can get angry because the events that transpired proved us to be wrong, and we don’t want to be wrong.
We can stick to what we are doing – happy to be just like the other Christians, and hoping that one day we would be accepted by them, hoping that one day we would have membership in the National Council of Churches. Happy to be paid the same wages as those who came in the morning.
But what if that isn’t what we are called to be? What if God intends for something bigger for us? What if, OMG, because of who we are, we have something special to offer the Church?
What if the first shall be last and the last shall be first means something more? What if being first isn't just about being on top, having the seat of honour, but rather, being first is about leading?
My friend Rev Cody Sanders wrote a book titled "Queer lessons for Churches on the Straight and Narrow." I read it on my month long break in August, and it had a lot to offer us in the way forward.
The Church needs to be relevant. Irrelevant churches only serve their own objectives and only serve to preserve the status quo.
But the Body of Christ is not to preserve the status quo. It is to break in the Commonwealth of God.
We, the queer church, is poised to be the ones breaking tradition - not for the sake of breaking tradition, but to usher in another reformation. We have the gifts to do it.
Many of us went through wrestling with our selves, and diving deeper into our faith, Scripture, to find something larger than ourselves. We have learned not to take things at face value, to discern, to explore.
The Church in Western Europe is dead. They are monuments to an age of glory. I was at St Paul’s in London for Evensong service. There was maybe 100-200 people there at the service. And almost all of them were tourists. Church is no longer relevant – only relegated to being a tourist attraction.
We, the church, the body of Christ, have to relate to the now.
We have learned a lot on our journey - we have reclaimed parts of our tradition that is useful for us, and embraced it. We have left behind the baggage of our tradition that is not useful for us, the kind that only hinders us.
We have communion every Sunday. We carry on this tradition that goes back to Jesus - and some folks would say go even way before that to the Passover meal – because it has meaning, it has significance. It is an intimate encounter with God. We have, however, left behind the baggage of exclusion that surrounds the table. We do not require folks to be baptized – some churches even restrict communion only to the people who are baptized in their own church and nowhere else. We left that baggage behind because it is not useful – it does not build up, and it does not bring people closer to God.
How? Who? What? When?
What lessons can we offer?
We, who were rejected know something about being welcoming. Though we must remember - we sometimes fail at being welcoming ourselves.
We, who are sexual minorities have something to offer about sexual intimacy. We know when it is intimacy, and when it is not intimacy. We know when sex is good, and when sex is bad. We know that just because sex is done within the boundaries of a marriage doesn't make it good, and we know that sex can be good and bad - and it really comes down to how we treat the other person - is there mutuality, consent, respect, love? Is sex socially just, life giving, affirming and liberating or is it diminishing, addictive, manipulative?
We know something about being reflexive - we want to examine and reexamine our assumptions, our motivations, our values and principles. We want to always ask ourselves the question - is what we are doing loving? Is what we are doing harmful?
We know something about not being dogmatic. Because our faith is a living faith. It is a journey with God. It is not nailed down to doctrines and dogma.
We know something about doubt and uncertainty. Because we know we need to have faith. If something is certain, we do not need to have faith. We learn to doubt because it keeps us thinking, it keeps us wondering.
There is still no other progressive church in Singapore.
I was speaking in a talk, and a young woman – probably studying in the university now came up to chat with me. She was from our neighbor across the road. I was talking about the only time Jesus got angry and violent. She had not been taught that before.
We need to stop seeing ourselves as latecomers to the field. Whether it is seeing the Western/ American colonialists as being more Christian than us, or seeing our heterosexual siblings as those who have been in the field longer than us, and we have to avoid offending them, or we have to placate them so we have a place at the table.
But we also have to look within ourselves, are we also the gatekeepers of Gilead, the ones who get angry when God makes people equal to us whom we think are not deserving one way or another.
Free Community Church – It is no coincidence that we are called Free Community Church – because we are called to First Realize Everyone’s Equal. We are called to Free others – because Free people free people. It is no coincidence that we are here at One Commonwealth. Because God is concerned about “the common good” –what’s good for all of us and not just for a few of us – the common wellbeing of all people – including the enemy, the Other, Nineveh.
As Marcus Borg so eloquently put it – “What is at stake is what might be called “the soul” or “heart of Christianity.” Is it about my doing well in this life and/or the next? Or about so much more? For me, it is about so much more. For it to be less than that would be a betrayal.”
i have no words
no words to console
no words to mourn
no words to grieve
i have no way
whether it is an infant
a child playing at the beach
a health worker
a drug trafficker
i know to well
that they are
i only have
for lives taken
with a press of a button
a squeeze of the trigger
i have one word left
a word i borrow from a friend
and that word is
this poem was edited after i found out that Singapore executed 2 drug traffickers on the morning of 18 July 2014 when i wrote this poem.
it is a hypothetical
an intellectual exercise
of an argument
i am not objective
i don't speak reason
i do not have
of talking objectively
when i am
i do not have
when you keep insisting
on pressing the buttons
all my trauma
all over again.
i do not have the privilege
when i deal with
the pain of those who have been hurt
those who took their lives
those who are thinking of taking
i do not have the privilege
to accept an apology
that was never given.
have you ever
from going into the
because you are not
next of kin?
because her parents
did not approve
of your relationship?
have you ever
someone out there
will be offended
that someone thinks
have you ever
may tell on you
and your life
after you have been
have you ever
they do not have hope
of a future
and they end it
with a step
off the ledge
off the chair
have you ever
who are more
with your sex life
my gay lifestyle.
You were not there
When they held each other
When they received the news
Of the passing of a loved one
You were not there
When they helped
Lay the table
For the family's reunion dinner
You were not there
When they committed to each other
For the rest of their lives
You were not there
When one waited
Outside the operating theatre
You were not there
When one bid the other farewell
Till they next meet again
Yet you are so quick
In telling them
Their love is evil
That they cannot be accepted
Their love less than yours
That their lifestyle is evil
Because all that is on your mind
Is what they do in their bedroom
If you were there
You would see
If you were there
That you cannot see love
When all you are about
i, like many others,
you would have
from whence we come
there we return
till we meet
Owes us nothing
Nor does the rain
Nor does the weather.
They just are.
If it rains
The birds do not
They just adapt
So self centered
That the sun shines
And the rains pour
It is not
Is it a tango
A cha cha
Or is it a solo
For a dance
And how often
Should you ask
Am I too strong
Is my embrace
Should I go faster
Or should I go slow
How gentle should I be
Should I lead
Or should I follow
When the dance is over
Will there be one more
I have often asked people how can they have a future they cannot imagine and dream about? But there is a dark side to being able to imagine, being able to see, being able to dream about what one can have.
I graduated from business school. I learned about marketing, advertising, as well as psychology and sociology that goes behind the decisions people make every day. In our consumerist/capitalist world today, it is not only about production, but also about consumption. It is not just about supply, but also about demand. Almost all corporations have their performance measured in terms of growth. Singapore measures its success in terms of economic growth. So in marketing and advertising, we try to tell people what they should desire, what they should want.
Walter Bruggemann describes this as:
"the endless demands of economic reality, more specifically the demands market ideology, as Adam Smith had already seen, on the generation of needs and desires that will leave us endlessly "rest-less," inadequate, unfulfilled, and in pursuit of that which may satiate desire. Those requirements concern endless predation so that we are a society of 24/7 multitasking in order to achieve, accomplish, perform, and possess. But the demands of market ideology pertain as much to consumption as they do to production. Thus the system of commodity requires that we want more, have more, own more, use more, eat and drink more."
Mix this with instant gratification and you arrive at a soulless society that is not aware of the consequences of its endless pursuit of more, more, more, or the fact that getting more does not satiate the endless generation of needs and desires that we are bombarded with.
You want an example? I'll give you one. We have games today where there are achievement badges. Or games that pit you against your friends. And they get us hooked. Score about 50,000 points and you get an achievement badge! Be top of the scoreboard amongst your friends! That's how Candy Crush Saga, Bejeweled, Farmville, and a whole host of other games get you hooked. It gives you a false sense of achievement. Maybe bragging rights. I know, because I got hooked too!
Some people used to (and still do) travel to find themselves, and to see the world. I see, more and more alarmingly, people travel to consume, to satiate that desire that was created in them through hype and marketing - the x number of places to visit before you die.
I used to think that way. There were several places on my list. Machu Picchu, the Parthenon, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque.... I no longer have a list. Perhaps it is a realization that I cannot have it all, and the fact that having it all does not give me a sense of fulfillment. Having been to these places does not make me better than someone who has not.
I helped out in a funeral recently, and I was moved deeply. I did not know the deceased when she was alive, but meeting her family and friends, I felt like I knew her - albeit indirectly. Her friends flew in from Canada and the UK just to bid her farewell. She was an amazing person who touched many lives. I reflected - this is a life well and fully lived. It wasn't about what she had, what accomplishments she achieved, where she had been. It was about how she lived, and how she loved.
I remember one audio recording from the CD "Graceful Passages" my Christian Spirituality professor, Prof Joseph D. Driskill, shared with me. It is by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, famous for her theory on the five stages of grief.
"When you make your transition, you will be asked two things basically: How much love have you been able to give and receive, and how much service have you rendered. And you will know every consequence of every deed, every thought, and every word you have ever uttered. And that is symbolically speaking, going through hell when you see the many chances you have missed. But you also see how a nice act of kindness has touched hundreds of lives that you're totally unaware of.
So concentrate on love while you're still around, and teach your children early unconditional love."
I think our preoccupation with the culture of more, of consumption, of now, stems from our anxiety around our limited existence, around our mortality. Sadly, though, it is this very culture opposes to what is life-giving, and leads us towards death - not just the physical death, but the emptiness and the dying of our spirits.
What is important to you? Why is it important to you? How does pursuing what you are pursuing bring you closer to what is important to you? Will the path you are taking lead you to where you want to be?
i keep hearing again and again about the traditional family - mom, dad and kids (hopefully 2.5 of them). There is nothing traditional about that. We have families that span many generations vertically, and many siblings horizontally. The Chinese in Singapore have clans where people who share the same surname and come from the same village who consider themselves family. It is rare to see a Malay family outing just with mom, dad and the kids - they gather as a family - with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins.
Families sometimes have little to do with how they are related by blood. I was raised by a woman who is not related to me by blood. My grandmother adopted my mother and raised my mother. When i was born, i lived with her until i was 3 or 4. (We were just a few blocks away from my parents' flat) My grandmother was a ma jie - she took a vow of celibacy and served as a domestic worker, and later a school attendant. Her family here was not just us - but her sisterhood of other ma jies, and only a few of them were related by blood.
Perhaps that is why i see family as something very much broader than the narrow definition of mom, dad and kids. Perhaps my personal experience opened my eyes to see that it wasn't blood that bound us together, it was love. Many of the ma jies treated me like their own kin - and when one of them passed on, i performed the funeral rites as her kin. My sister and i are both drawn towards old ladies because deep inside, we know any of them can be grandma. We don't need to be related to someone genetically to consider them family. We feel for their plight - struggling to make ends meet collecting cardboard boxes or drink cans - because that could have happened to our grandma.
When i was a chaplain intern in a hospital in California, i was often called to the ICU as i was the only Mandarin and Cantonese chaplain (i was the only Asian chaplain for that matter). There was once an elderly Chinese patient who passed away, and i was called to be with them. But i noticed that the African Amercian nurse was distrought, and i helped cover some of her duties going through the paperwork with the family while she removed the tubes and cleaned the deceased' body. i sat down with her after we were done and asked her what was wrong. She said that she grew quite close to the deceased and she was getting better before she turned for the worst. Even though there was a language barrier there was something she could not explain - she could only say - "She reminded me of my grandma." i was surprised. Here is an African American nurse and a elderly Chinese woman. Not only are they not related by blood, they did not speak the same language, they did not look the same. They were as different as you can get. But yet, there was a bond - there was something much, much deeper. i think this is what we share as mammals - if we can share affection across species with our pets, then we can affection across cultural, social, racial, language differences.
We need to stop drawing circles to exclude people from what we define as family. Because that is what it does is this - exclusion. It is about defining what is us, and what is them. It is about drawing the line who i must love and care for, and who i do not need to love and care. Love is not inward looking, self-serving, and selfish. Love is ever expanding to include those on the margins, caring for those who cannot give anything back to us, caring for those who are different from us. Families are not defined by their composition but what they are based on - love. Whether it composes of a sisterhood of ma jies, or mom, dad and their children, or a single person and his or her pet, or grandparents with their grandchildren, or single parent households, or LGBT couples and their friends, or all of the above - love is what they share.
i hope one day we can call each other family. Regardless of race, language, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, educational level, socio-economic class. Regardless, because all that matters is love.