Healed of the Sin of Religion: At Church with Sara Miles

The first time I drove past St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill, I doubled back to take another look at the striking brown-shingled building with its pointed cupolas and massive wooden doors—directly across the street from a fortress-like brewery.

As it turns out, the juxtaposition of beer factory and house of God is not out of line with the way Sara Miles, now Director of Ministry at St. Gregory’s, understands the sacred and the role of church. As she tells it in her memoir Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, it was an offering of food and drink, communion, that knocked her sideways, led her—secular, gay, worldly—to join the welcoming congregation at St. Gregory’s, found a food pantry, and get baptized. In that order.

The theology Miles develops in her newest book, Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead, evoked in stories of her own conversion and of the work it led to, is undeniably elegant. It’s about bodies: the bodies we live in, or the ones we bump into on the subway, God’s body in the Christian liturgy, or the “body” that is a well-functioning church.

We spoke last month about about the problem with religion, about the ideas liberals and conservatives share when it comes to “doing good,” and about how to distribute eleven tons of free food in two and a half hours.

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Your first book was a memoir, the story of how you came to church for the first time, and stayed. But—and this might be because of your background as a journalist—you seem less interested in talking about yourself, and more about the context you found yourself in.

Yes, to actually write about myself was not what I planned. What was most interesting to me was the sense that I had walked into the Episcopal church at a very particular historical moment, the moment at which it was flipping from being the center of power to being this marginalized, ridiculed, unimportant institution—which I think is a great blessing. A huge blessing—very, very lucky for me.

As I wrote, what was interesting for me as a journalist was the intersection, the class politics of denominational differences. So that people who had been on the outside, the crazy Pentecostal snake handlers, and the suburban evangelicals, those people were coming into power; and the golf-playing, scotch-drinking Episcopalians were losing their grip.

All this other stuff was happening in terms of religion in the United States at the moment when I started going to church—and that was a story to me that was interesting.

You describe growing up in a determinedly secular household, not going to church at all.

I didn’t grow up going to church, though I definitely grew up with the influence of my grandparents, who were very socially active, progressive Christians from the 1920s on. They were part of the ecumenical movement; anti-war, internationalist, civil rights activists—I have a great photo of one of my grandmothers walking off to jail, holding the hand of a cop as she was being arrested.

But no, I wasn’t raised in it at all. When I moved here I didn’t know anybody who went to church; San Francisco is apparently the least churchgoing city in America.

In Jesus Freak you write about going around the country, to talk about your work with food pantries, and change in churches, and meeting many people who say something like, “Oh, it’s wonderful what you do, but we could never do that here…!”

It’s this weird thing. Before I became one, I didn’t understand there’s this whole industry of church professionals whose job it is to be inspirational.

So here’s what I think—and this is not an original thought, St. Paul had this thought—people want to change and people don’t want to change. People profoundly want to be made new, and people profoundly want to be clothed in Christ, to be born again. And they profoundly want to cling to everything old—about the world, and about themselves. The thing is, that church, as it’s set up, is not usually a way to change; it’s a way to cling to the way things are.

I just read an article about a set of emerging renewed churches, two churches, actually, and one synagogue. And it was all about how we’re making churches that aren’t like those old-fashioned ones, they’re places where we can feel comfortable.

But of course that’s the impulse shared by members of the most conservative old-school parish, where you just mumble your way through the mass. Church is a place where you’re comfortable. And it’s a place that certainly replicates class structures and racial structures.

You go where you feel you belong (the phrase “our church home” is telling). Of course I understand that people want to feel at home. You live in capitalism, to be crude about it; you live in a hard place, and you want a place that feels authentic and real and where you can be yourself. But what I see over and over again is this inability to tell the difference between tradition and nostalgia.

And so, whereas I think there’s incredible power in trying to recuperate tradition and reflect on it and consciously appropriate it, there’s also this individual and social psychology of clinging to tradition, and “if we just keep doing the same things over and over again we’ll be okay.” Which is, of course, idolatry.

It was interesting to me that you make very clear distinctions among “religion,” the church, theology, and practice. You say, for example, that religion is “a set of ideas about God.” You don’t talk much about sin, but when you do it’s this surprising reading of the story of the Canaanite woman (from Matthew) in which Jesus has to be “healed of the sin of religion.”

As someone who is not a scholar of religion, there are a couple of things that struck me when I became a believer. One is, of course, that every religion claims that it has the inherent path to truth, when in fact it is a catalog and piling on of heresies. You pile the heresies on top of each other and the ones that last become orthodoxy. There’s a constant re-making of religion.

So, there’s this desire for “pure” religion, and then there’s actually how it’s made. And how it’s made is how all cultural stuff is made: people pile stuff on. And they sometimes fight over it, and they win by violence, and they win by persuasion. It’s a cultural artifact that’s made by people. Religion can also very easily become a way to manage God; this is why people say they lose their religion when bad things happen to them.

The idea that you’re appeasing God by performing ritual actions is really profound. And people long for it—I long for it. I like the idea that if I simply light the candles at a certain time and say the prayers at a certain time and cross myself in the right way, I will be safe. And I’ll be good. And I’ll be right with God. But that reduces God to an object that can be manipulated by my technology—my words, thoughts, gestures. Or I create an even more complex system in which my priest tells me how to be right with God, and all I have to do is obey the human authority. I start to imagine I can control God.

Why I think that’s sinful is that it takes you out of relationship, and I think sin is what breaks relationship. You’re divorced from having to have a real relationship with God—including one that is unsatisfying, frustrating, painful, confusing, mysterious.

It’s hard. But people want it. They want to be protected from relationship with God and with other people but they yearn for it. They yearn for it so much, because it’s great and scary. It’s like falling in love; it’s a powerful, real thing.

And this transcends politics. It’s not as if liberals are any better at serving the poor than conservatives. You talk about these very progressive congregations using “charity” or of “doing good” to distance themselves from those they’re serving.

I think the desire to be good gets expressed in different ways. I have a friend, a volunteer at our food pantry, who sleeps in the street under a bridge and is here at 7:30 in the morning because he wants to do something for people. He’s got a passionate desire to give something, because he’s realized that the experience of giving changes him.

But there’s also this alienated idea that you can please God by doing good deeds. Crossing yourself, saying the prayers, refusing to eat meat, are like being nice to a poor person. In other words, instead of having relationships with the people you’re giving to, the act of charity becomes a magical ritual that will save you, or protect you, or make God like you better.

And I don’t think God’s interested in people being good.

I think the personalizing of God as a parent who wants you to behave is not helpful. I think the continual conversion and change of yourself to more and more reflect God’s love: that process, of coming closer to God, is God’s desire. Our patron saint Gregory of Nyssa says that we’re most like God in our desire. That God’s desire for us and our desire for God’s love is a desire that is never satisfied, never reached. The more love there is the more love is created.

Speaking of desire, you remake the venerable idea of Jesus as bridegroom. You call him “the boyfriend.” What’s that about?

Jesus as the boyfriend. It’s funny and queer, but really the reason I like “boyfriend” as opposed to “bridegroom” is that it shows how utterly outside the law Jesus’ relationships with us are. It is not about the law. It’s the boyfriend, not the bridegroom. He’s not establishing himself as the bridegroom in a traditional family in which everyone has a defined role. And where you as the subject/child/bride fall into line. It’s outside of this line.

There are so many problems with church as it is. Do you think the institution is redeemable?

Well, I don’t think the answer is: let’s have a church with groovy music that the kids like. That’s just endless marketing.

Here’s what I saw, going around the country. People want to do stuff, and they actually want to do Jesus’ work—they want to be disciples. And instead they feel like they’re shunted into these slightly embarrassing, not exactly shabby, but not-working-very-well institutions. The attempts to modernize and make it creative don’t necessarily deal with the basic problem: at some point the church becomes about maintaining the church instead of being about empowering people to do the work that God gives them to do. And it becomes a place where you prove yourself by being good, as opposed to a place where you become more and more whole.

What it is about church? I could say all kinds of bitchy things about all kinds of churches but I think it’s actually a constant tension: it’s not that all churches are bad and it’s an inherently screwed up system. I don’t think that the answer is what a lot of people say, which is, Well I’m spiritual but I don’t believe in organized religion. Or I don’t want to be a part of a church because they’re all about power and they’re corrupt. I think there’s a huge function for a church, which is to be a body.

Right? To be a body that actually you didn’t pick. It’s incredibly important for people, and I think the challenge about church is not how to make it more relevant, how to make it more hip, cooler, or how to dispense with it entirely in this sort of über-Protestantizing impulse—“It’s just going to be me and Jesus and we’re going to have a great thing going, without anybody else” I think the challenge is how to see yourself as part of a body, and to keep that body constantly permeable, so people are coming in and going out. It’s not: This is our wonderful home, our beautiful club, our church. But rather, who are we and what are we doing as a body.

Church is actually a place for people to experience we. You can experience we in that fascist assembly way in which we’re all standing and reciting prayers in unison and blaming the Jews for everything that went wrong. But there are other ways of experiencing we that actually come from looking at the traditions, participating in them. And fighting against the individual consumer model of everything—actually submitting to being part of a body, and focusing your life together on work. Real work, as opposed to simply replicating church.

I like that idea of it being people you don’t pick yourself. That strikes me as one of the best things a community can offer.

I just think that’s the greatest thing. I need to be knocked around in the great rock tumbler of the church with people I didn’t choose—because left to my own devices I’m gonna choose people like me. And that is not how Christianity works. Christianity puts you together with all humanity. It’s not about your choice. It’s about “this person is part of the body too,” and that I can’t actually understand myself without understanding my relationship to you.

Again, it’s a religion of relationship. And you don’t get to pick what the edges of that are.

There’s that great part in Acts where this trippy sheet comes out of the sky and it’s filled with crawling things and snakes and pigs and insects and spiders and God says to Peter, You should eat. And he says, I can’t eat this, it’s all unclean. And God says, How dare you call unclean what I’ve made. I’ve made everything.

Did writing about this change your experience at all the way you operate in community?

Paul Fromberg, the priest in charge of St. Gregory’s who cooks for the food pantry with me, said something so lovely once about the work of community: “We’re doing midrash on our own lives.” Or you could call it gospel-making. We’re making gospel.

It’s a religious practice, to pay attention to what you’re doing, and try to look at it, ask what it means. The process of remembering, rebuilding through story, is incredibly eye-opening.

And the temptation is always to make it into a neat narrative, instead of to actually pay attention and say: where are the ragged edges in this story? Instead, make it a parable, not a fable. A fable has a point, a single moral, but a parable is like a koan. It just opens up more and more layers of meaning. You can get lost in a parable. It can mean all kinds of things.

I admired the way the book was organized. There was a suspense factor: feeding, healing, all of that made sense, but raising the dead? I kept wondering how you were going to pull that off, literarily or otherwise.

Did that part make sense?

Absolutely, in the way you evoked that liminal space, between life and death…

It ain’t a party trick!

Well, I’m not going to give it away, the way you raise the dead—it’s in the book. But I wanted to ask you to say something more about that image of these beautiful sanctuaries, these worship spaces, that are empty, while a soup kitchen, massed with people, operates in the basement below.

That’s a really interesting idea about what holiness is. Is holiness the thing that you don’t touch? Or is holiness covered with fingerprints?

At St. Gregory’s we have the altar in the very center of the church—and we use it for holding coffee after service. And I’ll ask someone to move some furniture, and they’ll say Where’s the sacred thing? I don’t want to touch it. And it’s like, No, the reason you touch it is because it’s sacred. And that’s what holiness is. Holiness is not hidden away in little pockets; it’s everywhere. Your job is to get close to it. You are participating in that holiness by being there. So the altar is not the thing that just the priest touches; the altar is the thing that the meth-head is leaning on. It’s strong enough to hold everyone.

What about that feeling people look to religion for, of there being ‘something higher’ or something to look up to?

Right. I totally understand that. But I think it’s sort of faithless to think that you could break God by touching the altar in the wrong way. Either this is God who made the heavens and the earth—in which case you spilling coffee on the altar is probably not going to be a big deal—or God is something really tiny that you’re managing.

Do you encounter resistance to this idea, like you’re messing with the idea of the sacred? Or of holiness?

What is it that you’re desiring? Part of you might be desiring rules, and a schematic way to manage things. But part of you is desiring more God, has glimpsed more, had an experience of more that it’s trying to recreate. And that’s the job of people who run churches—to try to listen to that desire, and feed it.

Every Friday you give away free groceries to anyone who comes—no requirements. You talk about the resistance to simply giving food away.

Well, we feed everybody. We feed the undeserving poor. That to me is one of the great gifts the church can offer. And again, it gets expressed in what people believe. Do people believe that God’s grace is for the people who deserve it? Do people believe that in my tradition, communion is for the people who deserve it? Do people believe that the sacramental rite of marriage is for the people who deserve it? Or do you just think: God’s grace is everywhere. It’s out of control. You actually cannot manage it. God rains on the deserving and undeserving alike.

Your task as a human being who’s constantly being remade, more and more, in the image of God, is to imitate that mercy. To give things away to people who don’t deserve it. And to understand that you don’t deserve it either. I did not deserve communion when I came here. And I got it. I don’t deserve it now, just because I’ve been taking it for a long time. I didn’t earn it.

For me the thing that is so deep and profound and radical about communion—even the cheesiest communion in the church that I have the least in common with—is that it is a meal you can’t buy. In the world, you can buy fifty different kinds of artisanal bread and fancy vintage wine if you have the money. Or you can’t, if you don’t have the money. But at this table nobody can buy the bread and wine. It’s just given away.

And so that is how we run the food pantry. You can’t buy it, you can’t earn it, you can’t deserve it.

You make the point of not making people sign up, or sign in, the way we do if we need government aid.

Right. You don’t have to prove anything. The imitation of God’s gesture in feeding us all is frightening, and difficult, and exhilarating. It’s an amazing experience to do that—it changes you.

Interesting, too, that the pantry is not run by volunteers from the church, as I had imagined.

It’s also true that because our food pantry is not run by church people—it’s run by poor people, who have their own desires about how to run it—we’re incredibly organized and efficient. It’s not some big hippie anarchic mess. We actually get 600 people in and out of here in two and a half hours on Fridays—and give away eleven tons of food. And we have live accordion music, and birthday cakes, and flowers. We have a blast.

Almost all the volunteers are people who came to get food and stayed to help out. But that’s exactly who I am. I really understand what that’s like, to come in shame and fear to some church and be fed—and then want to stick around to help others. And people want to give something, so much. They wind up giving to people who aren’t like them, or who irritate them, or people they adore.

And it’s funny, the desire of churches to make it into a social service program is so profound—like we have this idea that to be really professional you have to imitate the DMV or the post office, something like that.

And in fact we’re not professional. Instead we get to participate in the gratuitous nature of creation, which is an amazing thing. And you try to organize it in a way that works well, which is what liturgy is. How do you express and respond to the ridiculous generosity of God’s love in a way that’s beautiful and pleasing and runs well and opens people to new life?

So that’s why worship and service are both liturgy, people’s work at becoming God.

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