By Jack Hoehn
Jack has been reading from a 21stcentury Christian woman he has not known before. He hears echoes from a 19th century Christian woman who suggested our church members become known for being “liberal.” How liberal are you willing to become?
The Christian ministry of Sara Miles does not look like what you are accustomed to. Her conversion story is not like what you are used to hearing.
She was raised by aggressively atheistic parents who consciously and consistently rejected the faith of their missionary fathers and mothers, and raised their children with purposeful skepticism and conscious avoidance of the spiritual. There were no Bible stories except in ridicule, there was no exposure to prayer or meditation or any form of spirituality. There was of course the morality that even materialists cannot deny, although the basis for morality without God is very tenuous, so Sara did grow up with a sense that this world and its institutions were not just or fair to the lower classes so she adopted an activism on the side of the downtrodden. This led her to Nicaragua on the side of the peasants and their social justice clergy. She wrote articles for Mother Jones magazine against the secret war Republicans were funding through Oliver North.
She had no reason to not submit her body to sex outside of the safety of marriage and had a daughter with a fellow journalist before he decided he was gay. And she herself fell in love and took a woman named Martha as her wife. They moved with her daughter to San Francisco as a place comfortable to her liberal politics and life style, and she worked in restaurants and enjoyed greatly feeding people.
Then one day she went by a church with an open door, and by the curiosity of a journalist went inside to look at it. There an Episcopal congregation was having open communion. She, as a walk in curiosity seeker, was offered a piece of white bread, and a sip of sweet inexpensive wine. And the priest told her as he put the piece of bread into her mouth, “This is Christ’s body broken for you.”
That is her conversion story.
The bite of bread converted her to a life of Christian ministry.
I’ll let you read Sara’s own words.
“One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I waked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans—except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.”
Everything did not mean her politics, her language, her love relationships. Everything meant the focus and goal of her life. Listen as she continues:
“Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food—indeed, the bread of life.
In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized that what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.”
For reasons she is unable to explain Jesus became as real to her as the bread in her mouth. And she came back to the church for another dose of Jesus week after week, learned of Him whom she had never known before, and found that Jesus had a job for her to do.
“I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I’d experienced.”
She was fortunate enough to have stumbled into a church that consciously did not put up barriers to Christ, but only asked the world to give Jesus a try. Taste and see.
Eventually Sara was baptized, and became a deacon in her church, and Jesus asked her to give His body to others in a practical and necessary ministry of starting a Food Pantry based in the church, focused on the communion table, giving away tons of fruit and vegetables and cereal to whoever wanted it around the same altar where she had first received the body of Christ.
Her writing skills brought books opening to us her experience with Christ, and her 21st century Christianity.
TAKE THIS BREAD, is her conversion story and the ministry God has called her to.
JESUS FREAK, has the arresting subtitles of “Feeding the hungry. Healing the sick. Raising the dead.” (And it is not about TV miracle shows.)
CITY OF GOD, talks about taking the church out of our religious ghettos out into God’s world and His cities.
Sara Miles is everything the fundamentalist purity branch of Adventism fears: She is a woman called to Ministry. She is married to Martha her Jewish wife raising the daughter from her out of wedlock pregnancy. She accepts as coworkers anyone willing to help, with no questions about their substance use, music preference, love relationships, race, gender, or socioeconomic status. She accepts multimillionaire lawyers, and recovering heroin addicts. And her food panty has no limits on who can get free food.
Do you think this was an easy thing for her wealthy, liberal, San Francisco church members to accept? No way! The radicality of really doing what Jesus said (“Give ye them to eat,” remember?) was too much for even them. She was told by a fellow staff member, after presenting her ideas to the church board, “We discussed the Food Pantry idea after you left, and I’d say the reactions basically ranged from ‘Over my dead body’ to “when hell freezes over.’”
What if they became a magnet for hundreds of poor, crazy, homeless, potentially dangerous street people? What if people came who didn’t really need the food? What if thieves started coming back after the pantry to steal from us? How were we going to deal with the mess, damage to the sanctuary floor, security, garbage, and the risk of damaging our beautiful new altar? What if, what if, what if. Sweet but impractical, dear. ]
Yet Jesus was God made flesh and blood. And Jesus told his disciples to feed people, in remembrance of me. And Sara felt called to do just what he said.
You’ll want to buy the book to see how it happened, and how it keeps happening today.
(If you’d rather look at a video, here is a good one by PBS. Sara Miles | May 25, 2007 | Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly | PBS)
But I want to share with you that Sara Miles is more than a Christian woman, she is a prophet. Not an oracle, that professes to speak as god, but a Christian woman who speaks in favor of God, in promotion of God’s agenda, as a goad to God’s people to actually do what God requires.
Unlike some prophetesses, Sara Miles does not minimize her fallibility. It’s all very open, but she is frankly an agitator and organizer for God. A Prophetess for our times and our cities.
And I am challenging you my Adventist church to dare listen to a Prophet. Some of us may not be ready to acknowledge that God calls women to be Pastors fully ordained, but you really can’t write off a Prophet just because she is a woman, now can you? So listen to see if these words come to us through Sara, from the Lord:
“Repentance…is not a psychological or an emotional process…Jesus wants you to change. Neither is repentance about simply saying you’re sorry. That’s just apology…which is about etiquette. Repentance is about rebirth…it means facing the world to do things differently.”
“In the Revelation of John, the gates of the new Jerusalem are never shut.”
“Though (the church) fights to keep the doctrine pure, the faith is constantly contaminated, syncretized, revered, and tinkered with by its adherents—and by outsiders like me…”
“Long after respectable Protestant denominations retreated inside, emerging from their church buildings only for graveside services—leaving just Holy Rollers, Mormons, and unaffiliated madwomen to evangelize alfresco—Catholics kept marching out into the streets …for processions, festivals, blessings, and liturgies at the slightest excuse…”
“My whole neighborhood is God’s city. How did I manage to not pay attention for so long?”
“Paradise is a Garden but Heaven is a city…a crowded, busy place jammed with languages and peoples, including the ones who argue incessantly with one another….a place as surprising and generous as the sheet full of formerly unclean food in the Book of Acts that turns Peter from heaven’s gatekeeper into its dazzled servant.”
“Jesus keeps dredging up odd fish in his net and dumping us all out, wriggling and shining, to reveal his Church.”
“Poor people believe in God; working-class people mostly believe in God; wealthier, more educated and ‘modern’ people don’t bother. But…even San Francisco—this rich, secular, young, high-tech city—is teeming with faith…. Within walking distance of the original Mission Dolores there are six thriving Catholic parishes and their attached schools; a crimson, steepled 1880’s Lutheran church converted at vase expense into the Hua Zang Si Buddhist temple and monastery; a large and shabby Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses; two Spanish-speaking Southern Baptist congregations; the sweet, wood-shingled Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents; a Lutheran church where old ladies sing in German; a pretty, freshly painted Iglesia Adventista del 7 Dia, wedged between a tax-prep office and a nail salon; two swaybacked Presbyterian churches (one Korean and one Salvadoran); a Salvation Army outpost; the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist; the mostly Nicaraguan congregation of Santa Maria y Santa Marta Lutheran; a few home congregations of Candomble, Santeria, and Voudo worshipers; two home churches of emergent-evangelical white Jesus freaks, a gay Reformed synagogue, where a Mennonite congregation also meets on Sundays; a convent of the Sisters of Charity; a Franciscan house; several Assemblies of God; a huge fenced nondenominational fortress with the word ‘Christian’ blazing in blue neon letters from its impenetrable ramparts; at least ten Pentecostal storefront churches, including the ‘Lyre of the Valley,’ the ‘Pillar and Ground of Truth,’ and the ‘Rock of Salvation,’ whose members cook and sell barbecue on the sidewalk after services; the interfaith chapel at the San Francisco General Hospital; and a dazzling assortment of botanicas, meditation centers, chapels, bookstores, and shrines dedicated to popular belief.”
OK that’s a long quote, but you need to get the message. Did you find your church in that net dredged up from San Francisco Bay? At least our Adventist Church was “freshly painted!” But if Sara is a 21st century Christian voice from Heaven telling you to take and eat, and to not call unclean what you formerly considered unclean what will the attitude be of Adventists to the other odd fish in God’s net, dumped out wriggling and shining not far from the Golden Gate? Throw all the others back into the sea, and only keep the Adventists?
There is a 19th century Christian spokeswoman for God to Adventists who suggested this:
“Let the world see that we are not selfishly narrowed up to our own exclusive interests and religious joys, but that we are liberal, and desire them to share our blessings and privileges, through the sanctification of the truth. Let them see that the religion which we profess does not close up or freeze over the avenues to the soul, making us unsympathizing and exacting. Let all who profess to have found Christ, minister as He did to the benefit of man, cherishing the spirit of wise benevolence.”
When two Prophetesses agree, one from the 21st century and another from the 19th perhaps we should listen fairly carefully? I’m not suggesting that any Iglesia Adventista close up and merge with any of the other denominations, but I am suggesting we may need an attitude adjustment for helpful cooperation with all kinds of denominations and with those without denominations, for ‘the benefit of man,’ in the Spirit of Christ.
Selfishly narrowed, not liberal, but closed up and frozen over, unsympathizing and exacting are not characteristics I am happy to see in Adventists at any level, from my house to the General Conference administrators. Friendly, open, cooperative, generous, helpful, respectful, and in the religious sense liberal, are what I wish my church to be known for.
I do not worship Sara Miles or approve of her past life-style choices, I do not worship Ellen White or agree with her inadequate, falsifiable views on geology and chronology. But I do hear the voice of God speaking to me through both of these Christian women. And I invite you my fellow believers to listen to them too and in your church home to make your version of the Iglesia Adventista del 7 Dia not only nicely painted, but a valuable partner in all the good works in your town.
 These quotations are extracted from Sara Miles’ books listed above, they have been shortened and mildly edited for readability in this article. Please read the original books for the exact quotations and their contexts.
 Ellen White, Testimonies to the Church, Volume 4, page 59. Please read the original for its context.
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