Nadia Bolz-Weber stood at the front of Calvary Baptist Church on 8th Street NW in Washington, D.C., dressed in all black with her vulnerabilities inked on her skin, to do what she says she has been called to do: preach the “damn Gospel.”
Washington was the third stop on Pastor Nadia’s tour for her newest book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People (Convergent Books), and nearly 300 individuals were gathered together on Sept. 10 to hear about her experiences as the founding pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colo. After forewarning the congregation that she tries not to “curate a version of [herself],” and was therefore likely use language many were unaccustomed to hearing from a pulpit, Pastor Nadia opened the pages of her book and began a dramatic reading from Chapter 8.
She may be a former comedian — and there sure was more laughter in those pews than on a typical Sunday morning service — but Nadia Bolz-Weber is anything but lighthearted. The chapter she turned to was a story from Christmas 2012, the season of joy that turned into a season of sorrow at the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. She read of her own experience of trying to comprehend that news of great loss, and of trying to incorporate a harrowing situation into a season characterized by “drummer boys and blinking lights and cheerful music.”
Within her tale of adding reconciliation to her annual lessons and carols was a challenge to the church: to come out of the hole of escapism and into “a place where we dive right into difficult truths.”
With hard-hitting candor, Pastor Nadia asked, “When we find ourselves in a world where we see up-to-the-minute images of human suffering...can we really afford quite so much sentimentality in Christianity?”
As we see bodies of child refugees washed upon shorelines, can we sit comfortably in our pews, not asking for any changes to our hospitality or political structures? When we know that innocent lives continue to be lost at the expense of keeping control of our guns for our own personal safety, does it make sense for us to gloss over the stories in the Gospel where Jesus proclaims peace over all things? Is Christianity about memorizing the most inspirational verses of the Bible, or is it about putting them into action to combat the injustices of our reality?
On Thursday, Sept. 10, I received a gift and a recommissioning through the readings and words of ELCA pastor and Sojourners’ cover girl Nadia Bolz-Weber. No, I did not win the ham raffle. Nor was I commissioned to do something creative to destroy a VHS copy of Stranger in the Night, though others in the congregation did leave with such prizes.
No, the gift I received was a reminder that I, as a Christian, have a responsibility to serve the world, not by providing “emotional idealism” to make everyone feel better, but by identifying that Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be with us in pain and suffering, and that the Bible is not a fairy tale, but a true sacrifice.
The evening concluded with the singing of a well-loved hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” a reward Nadia Bolz-Weber promised the congregation if “we were good.” With piano at first, and eventually a cappella, voices raised in harmony in yet another reminder of the truth and grace of the crucifixion: “Jesus sought me when a stranger, Wandering from the fold of God; He, to rescue me from danger, Interposed His precious blood.”
Strengthened with the Bread of Heaven, I left that sanctuary asking myself how I could welcome the stranger, extend peace to the suffering, and challenge my own church with the command to truly take up our cross and follow Jesus.