Sunday, October 30, 2011

Entering the Promised Land: A Sermon on Joshua 3:7-17

Many years ago, when I lived in Atlanta, I would occasionally attend Shabbat services at Congregation Bet Haverim, the glbt synagogue affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement. They met in the parish hall of an Episcopal church that I attended for two years. One Friday night, I had the great privilege of being present for the dedication of their Torah scroll. The student rabbi leading services, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, later became the rabbi of Congregation Bet Simchat Torah, the glbt synagogue in New York City. She had us put our chairs in two long rows facing each other, and hold out our hands, and unrolled the Torah scrolls on our outstretched arms. She made a joke about no one getting out the correction fluid for the “clobber passage” on homosexuality. The passage in front of me was the one giving the laws of Yom Kippur.

The sermon she preached that night was one of the best and most memorable sermons I’ve ever heard. She mentioned that, while most of the Torah dealt with the journey of the Israelites toward the Promised Land, they never reached it within the Five Books. Even Moses, the greatest prophet of the Jewish people, was not allowed to enter, but had to see it from afar before dying and being buried. She compared that to our spiritual lives, during which we are always “on the way” toward the fullness of the presence of God, and of living in perfect harmony with our neighbors – yet we never reach that destination in this life, although it is to be hoped that we are moving closer to that destination.

I believe that this insight is valid for us as Christians as well. We will never reach the place where we are constantly “practicing the presence of God”, to use the phrase used by the Carmelite lay brother and spiritual master Brother Lawrence, who famously said that he was as conscious of the presence of God while washing dishes as he was on his knees in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. We may have glimpses, we may even have extended periods of this, yet we never reach the point where this is our reality twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

And we never reach the point where our whole lives are lived in perfect charity with our neighbors, live lived in full witness to peace and justice. We may strive for God’s kingdom to come on earth, but it will never be here in its fullness on earth before the eschaton.

Today’s first reading, in the book of Joshua, which appears after the Torah, tells of the arrival of the Israelites in the Promised Land. But there is a final hurdle that must be overcome before they can enter: the Jordan River. God tells Joshua that the way they can overcome that obstacle and enter is by having the priests take the Ark of the Covenant, and walk into the Jordan River. The waters will then gather in a heap, and the dry land of the riverbed will appear, and the Israelites will be able to cross over in ease.

And that is exactly what they did.

The Ark of the Covenant was the most sacred object in Israelites’ worship life. When not in travel, it rested in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the Tabernacle and Temple. On top of it rested the Mercy Seat, on which the High Priest sprinkled blood on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. There are two accounts in different parts of the Bible as to what was inside of the Ark. In some places, it is recorded that only the two tablets of the law, containing the Ten Commandments, were placed inside. In other placed, there are added a scroll of the Torah, a jar of manna – the mysterious substance that God rained down from heaven to feed the Israelites, and finally, the budding almond rod of Aaron. When there were those outside the Levite tribe who wished to be priests in place of Aaron, God instructed Moses to have each tribe place an almond rod – a dead branch -- inside the Tabernacle, and in the morning, Aaron’s had budded, and the others had not.

In our own lives as Christians, while we will not reach our true home, the Promised Land, in this life, there are even obstacles preventing us from reaching those glimpses we are given in this life. Like the Israelites, God has provided us with an Ark that contains gifts that can help us overcome those obstacles, our Jordan River separating us from the land of Canaan. If I may be permitted an allegorical interpretation of the Ark, I believe we as Christians can profit from this passage.

Just as the Ark contained the scroll of the law, and the tablets with the commandments, so we are given the gift of Scripture. In the first Psalm, it says of the righteous that “his [or her] delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law doth he [or she] meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:2) – which is quoted in the Rule of St. Albert, the Carmelite Rule, as the principal duty of those following it. As we meditate on Scripture, day and night, our lives are transformed, and we are able to be conformed more and more to the image of Christ, in which we are created, and to which we are restored. The word of God in Scripture leads us to the Eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ.

We are also given manna in the form of the Eucharist, and by extension all of the sacraments. We are fed week by week, or even day by day, by the Body and Blood of Christ, receiving Him into our lives, so that we may become living tabernacles, sharing Christ with all with whom we come in contact. We receive the Body of Christ, so that we may become the Body of Christ in the world.

And the rod of Aaron reminds us of the baptismal priesthood to which we are all called. As we share in the offering of our lives to God as a living sacrifice, as Christ offered his body on the altar of the Cross for the whole world, so we too receive new life, just as Christ was raised from the dead. We mediate the reconciliation of the world to God through Christ by sharing with Christ in his eternal priesthood.

As we continue our journey, may we be filled with grace to receive these gifts of Scripture, Eucharist, and Royal Priesthood that we are given in our own Ark of the Covenant, Jesus Christ, and may we be enabled to pass into the Promised Land through Christ.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Challenges and Gifts of Priesthood: On being a Confessor

It is tricky to discuss one's experience as a confessor, lest it lead to inadvertent breaking of the seal of the confessional. However, let me just say that the challenge, as I see it, is not the particular sins confessed. Most confessions, I would imagine, involve the confession of mundane sins of the sort that everyone commits on a regular basis, and in this day and age, particularly in the ISM context, everyone who comes to confession is sincerely penitent. Most confessors, upon hearing the list of sins, will most likely think, "Oh, yes, I committed this sin just the other day. Yes, that is an area I need to work on as well." Giving a penance (and I have only given the reading/praying of Scripture -- mostly the Psalms -- as a penance) and giving absolution is not really the challenge.

The real challenge is meeting the penitent where they are in their spiritual life and helping them. Some penitents come because confession is a regular part of their spiritual lives, and they are really only seeking absolution. And that is okay -- that may only be there to receive the sacrament. Others, in addition to this, may come to the sacrament also seeking a way to deepen their spiritual journey, and the confessor ideally will be able to hear this and provide some counsel or advice that will help the person to take the next step, whatever that may, on that journey. And since people are coming from a variety of places along that journey, this can be a challenge.

It's really no different at all from ministering to the people who come to Mass. The priest's duty as preacher and celebrant of the Mass is to preach the Word of God well and to celebrate the sacrament in a reverent and prayerful way, so that all who attend may receive the Word and the Body and Blood of Christ to strengthen them for service in the world. However, there are those who will come with a particular spiritual need, and before or after Mass, the priest may be called upon to provide further pastoral care to help that person where they are. Again, that can be a real challenge -- in fact, that may be a much bigger challenge, since it comes in the context of interacting with a whole community, and it can be trickier to discern the signs of what is going on with a person.

Discussing the interesting hard cases of the really big sins, or the preaching of particularly difficult texts, or the precise rubrics of the Mass are fun exercises -- it is dealing pastorally with individuals and communities that is the difficult work, and it is an art, not a science -- and the grace of the Holy Spirit in the moment often proves much more valuable than all the conversation about it in the world.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

On Priesthood

(in response to a question asking "What exactly it is that priests *are* and how priest, deacon, and laity are distinct in how they *are* in the world?")

First, the three orders of ordained ministry involve identification with particular aspects of Christian discipleship to which all baptized Christians are called to some degree -- it is just that deacons, priests, and bishops are called to identify with them to a degree that ordinary Christians are not. All are called to serve, as Christ was called to serve, but deacons are called to identify with that servanthood in such a way that their whole life becomes a life of servanthood. All are called to act in priestly ways, but priests are called to identify with Christ as priest and victim in such a way that their whole life becomes a life of priesthood. And bishops, in addition to being "high priests", are called to the ministry of shepherding, of overseeing the church -- and all are called to that ministry to one extent or another, but bishops are called to identify with the church in such a way that their whole life is a life lived for the church.

Specifically, priests are called to be ministers of Word and Sacrament, most especially the Eucharist. All Christians should read and meditate on Scripture, and make the Bible their own book -- but priests are called to so identify with Scripture that they are women and men of the Word, so that it permeates their very being, so that they can preach -- the official sermons during liturgy are when they do this most visibly, but in a sense, there should never be a time in their waking life when they are not (and the dreams of a priest while sleeping should be filled with biblical symbolism). All Christians are called upon to sanctify their daily lives with the presence of Christ, but through the life of constant prayer (the center of which is the Divine Office, with its round of psalms, scripture, and prayer on behalf of the church) in intercession for the church, the priest is called to live out that Incarnation constantly. (While I know that religious do this as well, the Divine Office is more of a means of sanctification for religious, whereas priests and other clergy are more bound to recite it on behalf of the church than as a means of personal sanctification. It is sacrificial.) Finally, with the Eucharist, the priest becomes an "alter Christus", "another Christ", in acting on behalf of Christ as the priest who makes the one sacrifice of Himself on Calvary, and acting with Christ in offering himself or herself on behalf of and in intercession for the world.

Another way of looking at this is to look at where the "home" of each order is. The place of ministry for the laity is in the world. When they come to church, they sit in the nave, and are the ones who receive ministry. Laity do not come to church to minister, but to be ministered to, so that they can return to the world to minister. The place of ministry for the deacon is at the threshold -- during the week, near the door of the church, acting to communicate between church and world. The place of the deacon during the liturgy of the word is at the crossing, between the nave and the chancel, proclaiming the gospel facing the people, leading the intercessions facing the altar. The place of the deacon during the liturgy of the Eucharist is at the altar, assisting the priest. The place of the priests during the week is in the church, ministering to those who come for solace and ministry. Their place in the liturgy is in the pulpit and at the altar. The bishop, as a priest, belongs in those places as well, but also at the cathedra, overseeing the whole operation. Joseph described it thus at the gathering with the clergy -- God owns the restaurant, the bishop is the manager, the priests are the chefs, the deacons are the waiters, assisted by the minor order busboys, and the laity are the customers who come to eat.

Monday, August 22, 2011

On This Rock I Will Build My Church

Matthew 16:13-20

There are a lot of people who have fun giving ironic nicknames to others. The giant, muscular football player named Tiny. The fluffy little dog named Killer. My neighbor’s cat Pixie, who despite the cute name, has a pit bull whimpering in fear.

Jesus did something like that in today’s gospel when he made a pun on the name Peter, which means Rock. “I say to you that you are Petros, and on this petra I will build my church.” But anyone familiar with the story of Peter in the New Testament knows that he was anything but a rock. He was actually rather unstable.

When Jesus was walking on the water, Peter impetuously decided to try it as well. But as soon as he got out on the waves, his fears got the best of him, he took his eyes off of Jesus, and he began to sink, so that Jesus then had to rescue him. On the night before he was betrayed, Jesus told Peter that he would deny him three times before the cock crowed. Peter said, “Not me! I would never do anything like that!” Of course, we all know the story – he did exactly that. When the going got tough, Peter proved himself to be a fair-weather friend.

This continued even after the resurrection. In Galatians, Paul tells how Peter would ignore the dietary laws when eating with those from a Gentile background, but then would follow them with those who insisted that all the Christians had to follow them as well. Paul rebuked him for his hypocrisy.

I even read the exchange between Jesus and Peter in the beginning of today’s gospel as Jesus gently teasing Peter. Jesus asks the disciples who people say he is, and the disciples tell him the different theories they have heard. Then, he asks them who they say he is. I picture them all looking at each other, afraid to guess, and then Peter impetuously guesses – not as the act of deep faith as it is often read, but rather as a guess, a stab in the dark. When Jesus tells him that “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven”, it is not so much a pious statement as it is a recognition that Peter is too much of a blockhead to ever come up with such a profound statement on his own – it is only by the grace of God that he is able to perceive the truth of who Jesus is – Christ, the anointed one, the son of the living God – fully God, fully human, God incarnate.

But I take great hope in this. If Christ could use Peter to do great things for God, then Christ can use me, as well – in fact, he can use all of us.

And when Jesus says that he will build his church on this rock, he is not referring to Peter alone, and still less to someone who holds an office that Peter may have held. He is referring to all of us who, by the grace of God, are able to recognize Jesus as the Anointed One, and who, by grace, are able to live our lives by that truth. All of us, when we make that confession, are made part of that rock on which the church is built – even as we stumble, as Peter stumbled, we know Christ is always ready to extend a hand to help us up.

So may we always live by the grace that enables us to recognize Jesus as the Christ, the son of the living God.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Prayers for the Journey

The request for my blessing by someone about to take a trip gives me great joy. It is not something I ever thought about prior to ordination. It is not even something that happens with any great frequency. It is certainly not something that takes a lot of time and effort, as preaching and other tasks do. But it is immensely satisfying, and I am always delighted when someone asks me to do it, as two people did this week.

I don’t have a standard formula – I pray extemporaneously for the person, adapting the prayer to the particular journey they are about to take, ending with a blessing in the name of the Trinity as I trace the sign of the cross on the supplicant’s forehead. Simple. I hope it is meaningful to the person seeking the blessing – I find great meaning in offering it.

Whenever I am about to leave for an overnight journey, I pray the Itinerary, a short office consisting of the Benedictus, the Lord’s Prayer, several versicles, and several collects evoking biblical journeys. It ends with the wonderful versicle and response “V.Let us go forth in peace. R. In the Name of the Lord. Amen.” The antiphon on the Benedictus recalls the journey of Tobit by invoking the archangel Raphael, and the Benedictus contains the prayer “to guide our feet into the way of peace”. The collects mention the journeys of the Israelites in the desert, the Magi on their way to pay homage to the newborn Christ, and Abraham as he set out from Ur, as well as recalling John the Baptist at whose birth the Benedictus was first recited by his father. It is a beautiful prayer, and it has a way of calming me as I set out. The Anglican Breviary adds to it a form of thanksgiving at the journey’s end, using Psalm 103, which is also lovely, and which helps me to return to my everyday life after a trip.

It is my prayer that all of my readers have safe travels wherever they go, as well as a blessed journey with God through life.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Part III of Sermon: "Confessions of a Church Polity Geek: Reflections on Doing the Holy Work of the Beloved Community"

This is part two of a three-part sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County on Sunday, June 26, 2011. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found there.

Because of the time spent to prepare this sermon, I did not have time to prepare a sermon for St. Mary of Grace's Sunday evening Eucharist celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi. I had planned on recycling a sermon I have given several times on the Eucharist. A few minutes before Mass, it occurred to me that if I switched the order of "discerning Christ's body in the Church" and "discerning Christ's body in the poor", I could use the four points in the third part of this sermon as an explanation of ways to live out being Christ's body the Church. During the singing of the Gloria in excelsis, it occurred to me that each of these four points could be tied to one of the marks of the Church from the Nicene Creed, and so in brackets, I have included the appropriate mark with the appropriate section, although this was not part of the sermon as preached to the UU congregation. There was more explanation of how the marks corresponded with the points, but that will have to wait for another blogpost. Self-plagiarism is a preacher's best friend.

There are four things the church must do in order to do its work well.

[ONE] First, each part of the church, be it a congregation, a regional unit, or a denomination, must order all of its activities around the central core values it holds as foundational – the beliefs and practices that are most sacred and most important to it. Of course, first, this means that a church unit must know what those values are, and be in unity about them. Every activity in which the church engages must be evaluated to see if it is in basic harmony with those values, and if not, whether it should be let go or reconfigured in order to better express the fundamental mission of the church. The church should also carefully consider whether it is being called to new ministries to better carry out its mission.

[HOLY] A church must be concerned with spiritual growth. Many religious traditions tell stories about a mountain as a metaphor for spiritual growth. Moses went up Mount Sinai to meet God and receive the law. Jesus went up a mountain with three of his disciples for the Transfiguration. St. John of the Cross, the great Carmelite mystic, used the Carmelite foundational symbol of Mount Carmel as the basis for his teaching about prayer in his classic work The Ascent of Mount Carmel, with a diagram of the mountain laying out the progress of the Christian’s life of prayer with God.

When you climb a mountain, there are two ways to go – you can keep ascending and going toward the top, or you can start going down. The spiritual life is similar – you are either progressing, going higher or deeper, or stagnating and declining, moving away from union with the divine. Everything the church does should be helping its members grow in the spiritual life. If it is not, it is very likely that it is moving its members away from the divine and hindering the spiritual life.

[CATHOLIC] A church must also balance the needs of the community as a whole with the needs of the individual. In order for the church to prosper, its members must sacrifice in order to contribute to the well-being of the community as a whole. Just showing up week after week is a sacrifice – in our busy society, there are always more enjoyable things that one could be doing. Members need to be willing to contribute their time, their talent, and their treasure for the church to continue to do its work. And members of the church need to be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to spiritual growth so that they can support one another. A church whose members do not sacrifice is not a true community – it is a collection of individuals, a social club.

But the church must also work for the good of the individual. A church that demands sacrifice but offers no freedom in return, and runs roughshod over its members’ individual gifts and needs, is a cult. True spirituality inspires each individual to attain the highest level of growth and flowering of her individual gifts. This must always be respected and nurtured.

[APOSTOLIC] Finally, there must be a balance between the pursuit of spirituality, the nurturing of community, and reaching out to the world at large with the church’s message of faith, hope, and love. A church that focuses on spirituality to the neglect of community and mission risks pursuing a false spirituality that is not engaged with real life – a spirituality which is an illusion. A church that is only inward-looking, fostering close relationships among its members without reaching out in love to others, risks becoming a social club. A church that is only concerned with fighting for justice, neglecting spirituality and its own health risks becoming a political club or a social service agency. While there is nothing wrong with either of these, it is not what the church is called to be, and it cannot do those tasks as well as organizations whose mission is to be a political party or a social service agency. All three of these tasks are necessary, and they must be balanced.

As we reflect on how the church does its work, let us commit ourselves more fully to our beloved community, and gird ourselves to do the holy work we are called to do.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Part II of Sermon: "Confessions of a Church Polity Geek: Reflections on Doing the Holy Work of the Beloved Community"

This is part two of a three-part sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County on Sunday, June 26, 2011. Part one can be found here.

There are three basic types of governance in church polity: congregational, presbyterian, and episcopal.

In the congregational model, each local congregation is autonomous and governs itself, without interference from higher church bodies. The local congregation owns its own property, and hires and fires its staff without interference. The most that can happen if it does something that displeases a denominational body is that that body can expel the congregation from the denomination. In this form of church polity, the laity are the ones with the most power.

In the presbyterian model, the governance is placed in the hands of small groups of elders, including clergy and a small body of lay elders in each congregation. Power is often distributed among the different levels, with the decisions of a lower body needing to be ratified by a higher body, and vice versa. The local body of elders call the clergy, but this must usually be ratified by the regional body of elders. Property is usually in the hands of the denomination, although there may be provisions for a church to secede with its property if it votes to do so by a supermajority, with the regional body ratifying it. In this form of church polity, the clergy and lay elders are the ones with the most power.

In the episcopal model, the governance is placed in the hands of bishops, who have authority in a given geographical area. It is the bishop who has the authority to ordain, and to place and to move clergy. The property is usually held by the denomination or by the regional unit of government, with the bishop having a lot of the authority over it. In this form of church polity, the bishops are the ones with the most power.

Many denominations do not have a pure form of church polity, but a mix of two or more of the basic types. In the Episcopal Church, it is sometimes joked that the polity is episcopal as regards the bishops, presbyterian as regards the clergy, and congregational as regards the laity!

There are advantages and disadvantages to all three systems.

In the congregational system, there is a high potential for the involvement of the laity, and decisions are made at the lowest level, so there can be a much greater chance of appropriate response to local situations. On the other hand, when dysfunctional situations arise, there is no denominational official who can step in and intervene and address the dysfunction. It is harder to address both congregations that treat clergy abusively, and clergy who are abusive of their congregations. My own father was very dysfunctional, and was fired by four congregations. It would have been very helpful if someone could have stepped in and made sure that he got the help he needed to address his dysfunctional behavior.

Also, while democracy works great in many situations, it can also lead to a “mob mentality” that inflicts harm on minorities. The Southern Baptist Convention, which is adamantly congregational, regularly votes to demonize lgbt folk.

In the presbyterian system, there is the advantage of governing by the wisdom of those most invested in the church. I have met many committed lay elders in Presbyterian churches, and they are a credit to their denomination. However, the danger can be that the process of governance so consumes the energy of those involved, that there is not enough energy for other aspects of the church’s ministry. In addition, it is more difficult to be flexible on the local level, since unity across the denomination tends to be much more highly prized in this system. And there can be a two-tier system of those with power and those without.

In the episcopal system, there is much more efficiency since one person is making most of the decisions, at least for a given region. And therein lies the rub – if the bishop is a person of great vision and wisdom, she or he can provide great leadership and can lead the church to great things. If not, however, the church suffers from the shortsightedness, mediocrity, or dysfunction of the bishop. I think this system works best in small churches, such as many independent sacramental jurisdictions, where the bishop knows everyone in the church, and when there is an absence of a theology that links the particular denomination with the church as a whole or with infallibility, so that people are free to leave if there is a dysfunctional bishop.

I have seen effective examples of all three types of governance, and disasters in all three. So it is not so much the type of polity that is most important to whether a church is doing its work effectively, but how those who govern use that polity.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Remembering My Mother's Death One Year Later

Today is the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. She died much as she lived – quietly, avoiding the spotlight, and without fanfare.

My father, in contrast, was a noisy person, always striving to be at the center of attention. He couldn’t even sit still – sitting in a chair, he would constantly shift position, fidget with objects, sigh or whistle or say something, even when alone, so that being in the same room with him one could not help but pay attention to him. Even when he was in his study praying or reading, he did so noisily. Reading his Bible or the many biblical commentaries in his library, he would constantly remark aloud on things he saw in the text. And when he prayed, he prayed aloud, sometimes muttering under his breath, sometimes shouting quite loudly. If he was home, he was making sounds, so that you knew it.

And his death was no different. In the hospital, five days before his ninety-second birthday, as I sat waiting for the end, his breathing changed dramatically, and he began to struggle for breath. I called in a nurse, and each of us held one of his hands. I told her something of his life story – how he had lost his first wife in an automobile accident, his first daughter at birth, and how my mother and I nearly died when I was born. I told her of the poverty he endured as a child, one of fourteen children of a mentally unbalanced father whose erratic actions kept the family impoverished. I told her of his religious journey as a fundamentalist minister.

I also told her of his stubbornness. Once, while home at Thanksgiving, as I was preparing to drive my parents down to the Ozarks for the family Thanksgiving dinner, a neighbor’s cat for whom my mother would leave out food was on the carport, rubbing up against my legs and purring. My father, who walked with a cane by that time as a result of strokes, came out to join us, and fell, with his cane going through the window of the screen door, shattering the glass. After my mother and I got him in and settled in his recliner, I put on gloves to pick up the glass, first throwing the cat into our car so he wouldn’t get hurt. But my father, rather than being content with resting comfortably after his fall, insisted on driving himself to some automotive store, after the cat had been liberated, of course, and taking me with him, as if to prove that he could still drive.

Similarly, I told her how, after his doctor told me he had six to twelve months to live, he lived eighteen months – largely, I suspect, to prove him wrong. He drew a breath, and then was silent, and she said, “That was his last breath.” And then he drew what was actually his last breath, and I looked at her and said, with a twinkle in my eye, “You had to issue him a challenge, didn’t you?”

My mother, on the other hand, was quiet. When she was home, her presence did not intrude on my consciousness as my father’s did, and we could inhabit the same space comfortably. She would speak her mind when she thought it necessary, but those times were few and rather far between.

While my father would get restless and get out and drive around town, stopping to gab with his friends in various places, my mother was fairly content to stay home, and she never obtained a driver’s license. (She also never got her ears pierced, and never wore pants.) Once they were in the nursing home, my father would spend as much time in the common areas as possible, having the aides wheel him there. My mother, in contrast, would hide out in her room, refusing the coaxing of the staff to come join in activities.

The night she died, friends of theirs, although my age, took me out to eat. My mother had been unconscious for several days. He was a Southern Baptist minister, and she had been a close friend of my mother’s, both of them regarding my parents as mentors and, in some ways, surrogate parents. We returned to the room, and he prayed with us, and they left. I sat down next to her bed, watching television, and about fifteen minutes after they left, noticed that she wasn’t breathing, and so I called in the nurses to confirm her death. There was no immediate change before she stopped breathing – indeed, although she had stopped not too long before I noticed, I don’t know how quickly I noticed after her last breath. She just slipped away quietly. I remember looking out the window and seeing one of the most spectacular sunsets I had ever seen, with the sky full of pinks, and reds, and oranges.

My Christian faith assures me that she is at peace.

Mary Coldwell Cravens, January 24, 1925 – June 28, 2010

Monday, June 27, 2011

Part I of Sermon "Confessions of a Church Polity Geek: Reflections on Doing the Holy Work of the Beloved Community"

I delivered the sermon yesterday, June 26, 2011, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County, in whose beautiful facilities my own church has the privilege of worshiping on Sunday evenings. The description of the sermon for their bulletin read:

Bishops have been assassinated for liturgies that lasted too long -- fistfights have broken out over the date of Easter -- excommunications galore have been issued through the centuries as people of faith have made decisions about their religious communities. Thankfully, none of these fates await the minister and lay delegation of UUCDC as they travel to Charlotte for the UUA General Assembly! While they are there, Bishop Cravens will reflect on healthy ways religious communities can engage in the holy work they are called to do.

For the reading earlier in the service, from which this sermon draws inspiration if not exactly being an exposition, I chose two biblical passages: Psalm 133 and Acts 2:42-46.

Because the sermon is a more central part of the service in the UU tradition, my sermon was considerably longer than the sermons I usually give, and since there were three distinct sections, I will post them separately (largely because I have not completed committing them to cyber-paper, given the fact that I preach like a Baptist). Here is part 1.

It may seem odd that I am a church polity geek. I love to read blogs by members of various denominations describing the political issues their churches are facing, and I tend to be pretty current in my awareness of those issues in most major (and some minor) religious groups. But I come by it honestly.

I spent a year and a half discerning a vocation to the Atonement Friars, a branch of the Franciscans in the Roman Catholic denomination. During that time, I experienced how that religious institute governed itself, and got at least some exposure to the governance of the denomination as a whole. Before entering, I actually read all of the canons of the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law.

Later, I served on the vestry of an Episcopal parish, and served as a Lay Delegate to the Diocesan Convention from the parish, again getting to know much of the inner workings of the Episcopal Church. Also, during that time, I managed to get roped into serving on the board of a Presbyterian parachurch organization as an “ecumenical representative” thanks to the executive coordinator, a friend of mine from divinity school.

About three years ago, with the help of some other members of the jurisdiction of which I am the bishop, I put together the Canons and Policies that govern how we do the Lord’s work church in our own small corner of the church.

But my interest in church polity goes back much further. Given the family into which I was born, I really didn’t have a chance.

My father and eight of his ten brothers were ordained ministers in various evangelical denomination, and one of the remaining two was a lay preacher, and if the other brother had not been killed in battle in World War II, he might very well have preached as well. True story: I memorized my uncles’ names by their denominational affiliation. Uncles Rupert, Luther, and George were ministers in the Church of the Nazarene, although Uncle George resigned when he divorced, and lived out his days as a Southern Baptist layman. Uncles Wilbur, Marvin, and Robert were Cumberland Presbyterian ministers. (Cumberland Presbyterians are basically hillbilly Presbyterians. I come from an Ozark Hillbilly family.) Uncle Ellis ended up as a Cumberland Presbyterian minister as well, after being a Free-Will Baptist minister for a few years. Uncle Vernon, after briefly trying out the Cumberland Presbyterians, became a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination in this country. My father was briefly licensed as a Free-Will Baptist preacher, and was ordained a Cumberland Presbyterian minister, but spent most of his career as a Southern Baptist minister, except for a few years during my childhood when he was an Assemblies of God pastor, before returning to the Southern Baptists.

I actually attended my first national church governance meeting when I was three – the Southern Baptist Convention in Denver. My main memory is going to the children’s room and sitting on a box to watch “Jot” cartoons – a church cartoon the Southern Baptists put out. (Not nearly as interesting as “Davey and Goliath”, which I also watched, a claymation program put out by the Lutherans.)

My first serious interest in church polity came at about age 9. My father had decided to leave the Assemblies of God and return to the Southern Baptists. He had a copy of the Manual of the Pentecostal Holiness Church, because a friend of his was trying to recruit him when he found out he was leaving the Assemblies of God (which is also a Pentecostal denomination), and I was fascinated with the history of the denomination and with the rules governing the church. I was also fascinated with the yearbooks of the various Southern Baptist associations and conventions, with their constitutions, bylaws, and statistical tables.

At age 10, my father had returned to the pastorate of a Southern Baptist church, and I had “surrendered to preach” – that is, come forward during an altar call to say that I felt called to become a minister when I grew up. My parents were going to the Southern Baptist Convention in Kansas City that summer as “messengers”, as the Southern Baptists call their delegates, and it was decided that I, too, should be a messenger, since the church was entitled to an additional one, and they were afraid that the “liberals” were going to take over. I was fascinated with the greetings from Baptist denominations in other countries. I remember singing “How Firm a Foundation” with the tens of thousands of messengers, hearing Billy Graham preach – telling about his experiences in a Communist country, going through all the booths in the exhibitors’ hall. I also remember that one of the votes that was taken was about homosexuality – they overwhelmingly voted to condemn it, with only a few dissenting – who were immediately looked upon with suspicion by everyone else as possibly being gay and definitely not being Christian.

On the way to the convention, we stayed with my Uncle Marvin, a Cumberland Presbyterian minister, and was fascinated with the book containing their Confession of Faith and the various polity documents, and requested one, which he sent me later that summer when they went to their own General Assembly.

A few years later, my father decided to return to the charismatic world and did not pastor a church for five years. At some point during that time, we began attending the United Methodist church our next door neighbors attended. I joined, and quickly took to reading the Book of Discipline, the book containing that denomination’s polity. The rule in United Methodism is that the Annual Conferences (roughly like UU districts) and General Conference must be made up of equal numbers of lay and clergy delegates. Each church has a lay delegate for every clergymember serving the congregation. Because there are ministers who are not pastors of congregations, serving in denominational bureaucracy, or chaplaincy, or the like, various annual conferences have come up with ways to make up the difference, and our annual conference let each district appoint two youth delegates, and I was appointed to be one of them for the conference occurring during the summer before my senior year.

In many ways it was a great experience. I attended all but one of the sessions. I enjoyed meeting other people. I bought some interesting books about worship that are still in my library. But I did miss one session – and I stayed away because it was too painful.

You see, when I was about thirteen, I started realizing that I was gay. Unfortunately, around that time, the United Methodist Church was debating the issue of ordaining openly gay clergy. A bishop in Colorado ordained an openly lesbian minister around 1982, and this caused an uproar in the more conservative parts of the denomination, including East Tennessee and southwest Virginia, the conference of which I was a part. That conference, like most of the Southern conferences, and some others, passed resolutions by overwhelming majorities condemning this move and demanding that the 1984 General Conference (they are held every four years) ban the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals”, a ban that, sadly, passed and remains in the Book of Discipline and that has been joined by bans on same-sex marriages being performed by United Methodist clergy or on United Methodist church property.

And, while I remain fascinated by church polity and continue to read – for fun – various things about religious communities and how they make decisions, it’s a very important issue, because people’s spiritual lives are at stake. How religious communities go about their work can have profoundly negative – or profoundly positive – effects on people’s lives.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sermon for Ascension Day

Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53

Watching television can teach you a lot of interesting – if erroneous – things.

The most common illness is not the common cold, it’s retrograde amnesia.

Most babies are born in elevators or the back seat of taxicabs.

If you invite Jessica Fletcher to stay with you for a weekend, you or someone close to you will end up murdered.

And there is a whole genre of movies and television shows built on the premise that if parents go away for a trip and leave their teenagers alone unsupervised, a very wild and destructive party will take place in their absence. Sometimes, the damage is repaired before the parents return and the parents remain in the dark, sometimes not. Sometimes, there is a responsible child who objects to the party, but this child’s opinions are always ignored. But regardless, if parents make plans to leave town, you can be assured that mayhem will ensue in their absence.

Today, we celebrate the Ascension. Like the parents in the movies and television shows, Jesus is leaving and is putting us in charge while he is gone. We know Christ is coming back, although we don’t know when, despite the many failed efforts of some to determine the exact date. Some of us may still be here when he comes for the second time – or, more likely, we will go to meet Christ at the end of our lives, when our eyes close in death. In any event, like the teenagers left to their own devices, there will be a day of reckoning to determine how we’ve done with Christ’s house in his absence.

In today’s Gospel, from Luke, we hear the disciples being told by Jesus that they will be “clothed with power from on high” and that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in [the Messiah’s] name to all nations” and that the disciples are Christ’s “witnesses”. We hear similar charges in the other synoptic gospels’ accounts of the Ascension, as well as in the account in the Acts of the Apostles. In John 14:12, Jesus tells the disciples that “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”

As wonderful as it was for the disciples to have Jesus in an incarnate body with them during his sojourn on earth, it was necessary for their growth into Christian maturity – and OUR growth into Christian maturity – for him to ascend into heaven, so that we might have a chance to do the works he had been doing, and even greater works.

What are the works of Christ’s we are called to continue and build upon?

Jesus came teaching and preaching the kingdom of God, and it was not what many expected – a military overthrow of the oppressors who occupied the land. No, building the kingdom of God means loving one’s neighbor as oneself – both the neighbors that are easy to love and the ones who are our enemies. Building the kingdom of God means embracing the paradox that true riches come from being poor in spirit, that the meek shall inherit the earth, and that those who mourn will be comforted. We are called to continue to teach and preach this message, and all of the things which Jesus taught and preached, and to do so both with our words and with our lives.

Jesus also came to heal the sick – both those sick in body and those sick in their souls. We most likely will not have the gift of miraculously healing the sick, but we are called to work to heal the bodies of those who are sick and cannot find healing, to work to heal our communities so that they become places which promote the health and wellness of people in all aspects of their being, and most importantly, we are to work to help people find that spiritual healing that can only come through repentance from sin and turning to God as Savior and Lord.

Most importantly, Jesus gave up his life for us on the cross and was raised from the dead on the third day, so that we, too, might know new life, both in this world and in the world to come. And we are called to offer our lives in sacrifice in union with Christ as well, and to preach the redemption that comes from trusting in the risen Christ.

We have been given a great work to do by Christ as he ascended into heaven. When he comes again, what will he find? Will he find that we have been faithful in doing the works he did, and even greater works? Or will he find that we have trashed his house like spoiled teenagers?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Father, Into Your Hands I Commend My Spirit

    Psalm 31 In te, Domine, speravi
In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame; *
deliver me in your righteousness.
Incline your ear to me; *
make haste to deliver me.
Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
for you are my crag and my stronghold; *
for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.
Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me, *
for you are my tower of strength.
Into your hands I commend my spirit, *
for you have redeemed me,
O LORD, O God of truth.
My times are in your hand; *
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.
Make your face to shine upon your servant, *
and in your loving-kindness save me.

The Psalms are part of the core of both Jewish and Christian worship. The Psalms were used in the Temple which stood in Jesus’ time, as well as in the synagogue. Among Christians, the Psalms are the biggest component of the Office, a form of prayer going back to the early centuries of Christian life, and which form the daily liturgical prayer of clergy, religious, and many laity. The first few verses of Psalm 31, our Psalm for this Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary, were at one time recited every night as part of Compline, the last prayer of the day, prayed before retiring, in the non-monastic Western Office. Jesus himself quoted from the Psalms often, and perhaps the most striking example of this is the fact that of the seven utterances recorded in the Gospels as being his last words from the Cross, two are quotations from the Psalms, and the last words he cries out before his crucifixion in Luke’s gospel are taken from today’s Psalm – “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

This past week, there has been a lot of talk about Harold Camping’s prediction that the Rapture would occur yesterday, on May 21. This prediction, which was proven false yesterday, was based on a false sense of security using erroneous methods of biblical interpretation. Camping’s followers were certain that they would be taken out of the world, leaving all the unbelievers to face five months of terrible judgment before being annihilated. On the Family Radio website, there is actually a tract claiming that there is “infallible proof” from the Bible that May 21 is the date.

Sociologists tell us that apocalyptic predictions are much more common during times of economic upheaval and uncertainty, so it is not surprising that Camping attracted so many followers. But the view that we can know with absolute certainty that we will be raptured out of this world on a particular date stands in sharp contrast with verse 15 of Psalm 31, “My times are in your hand”. We have no control, ultimately, over what will happen in our lives. Certainly, there is much that we can do that will most likely make our lives better, and many things that will make them worse. But in an instant, our lives can change dramatically, be it through illness, accident, death of a loved one, the actions of loved ones – over whom, let’s face it, we have no control, as much as we might like to pretend otherwise. But the promise of scripture is not that God will miraculously change the circumstances, but that God will be with us no matter what we face.

And this is shown very dramatically in our Lord’s last words from the cross, taken from verse 5 – “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” The night before, Jesus prayed “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done”. And the cup was not removed from him, and he was executed on the cross. But to the end, he maintained his trust in God, no matter the circumstances, commending his spirit into the hands of God the Father at the end. And so we are called to do. Not to seek a quick exit from our troubles, not to ignore them, but to trust God to be at our side as we go through them, so that we can pray with Jesus, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Rapture

Today was supposed to be the day for the rapture, according to Harold Camping, the leader of Family Radio, who arrived at the date through a whole series of confusing and complicated mathematical equations based on Biblical passages. So far, none of the earthquakes that he predicted have materialized, and it seems pretty clear that his predictions have been proven wrong. A lot of people – myself included – have been ridiculing his predictions and celebrating his failure.

But there is a tragic component to this – he has thousands of followers, who have quit jobs, spent their life savings spreading his message, and in general, ruined their lives. They will have to pick up the pieces of their lives and try to rebuild. Worse, many of them have children, who have been subject to abuse and neglect as part of this. I have read stories about teenagers despondent over the fact that their parents refused to save for college in light of the end of the world, and children told point blank by their parents that they would not be going to heaven.

And this breaks my heart, because I experienced the abusive effects that sometimes come from religion as a child. While my father, a minister in the Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God denominations at different points in my childhood, never predicted a specific date (although he did once say, around 1974, that he was quite certain that the rapture would take place no later than 1977), he did preach an imminent end to the world, and I was exposed to books and movies that graphically depicted the horrors that unbelievers left behind would experience. On numerous occasions, I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, from a nightmare where I was one of those left behind. Sometimes, I would find myself alone in the house, not knowing where my parents were, and would experience a panic attack, convinced that they had been raptured while I had been left behind. On one such occasion, my father thought it would be fun to play a prank, ignoring my hysterical upset cries, and jumped out and scared me, and although I begged and pleaded with him never to do that again, he just laughed it off as a fun joke. (I did not tell him that the specific source of my fear was being left behind after the rapture, but his lack of empathy for my obvious fear and panic is not something I would recommend as a parenting technique.)

When I was eight, I was sick with a cold, flu, or some common illness, and stayed home from school. My father gave me a book on divine healing that morning written for adults by Hobart Freeman, a minister in the charismatic movement, and told me to read it and pray for healing. Later that afternoon, when he asked if I had read it, I told him I had not, because I did not feel well. He said that I obviously wanted to be sick, because if I wanted to get well, I would read the book and pray and believe and be healed. I later learned that because Hobart Freeman’s followers did not seek medical care because of his teaching that it was sinful, several children and others had died, and as a result he was put on trial for negligent homicide. Ironically, before the case came to trial, he himself died from a serious illness for which he refused medical treatment.

When my father was removed by congregational vote from his pastorate, something that occurred in four different churches over the course of my childhood, about the time I was nine, he received information from the denomination (at that point, the Assemblies of God) about a number of congregations that were open. I remember that he, my mother, and I would discuss them. One did not sound very ideal, and when I said so, my father yelled at me that if I kept refusing openings God was giving us, we wouldn’t find a new church, and it would be my fault. (Later, as a teenager, when they learned I was gay, my father again blamed me for his not being able to be called to a church, saying that God was punishing us for my sin.)

These experiences were very damaging to me, and although I was ultimately able to find a way to experience a non-abusive and healthy form of Christian faith, it was an unnecessarily arduous journey, and there are scars that remain. And others who have experience abusive religion have not been so fortunate.

Religious abuse can undoubtedly occur in many religious contexts, but I think there is a special danger in communities which claim infallibility for their teachings and who have strong leaders who exercise that infallibility. In the case of the fundamentalist churches in which I was raised, the Bible was considered to be the inerrant word of God, and the preachers who interpreted it were often put on a pedestal and given a lot of power over their parishioners’ lives. Fortunately for the congregations he served, my father’s sometimes combative personality led them to reject his authority, and the Baptist doctrine of soul competency – the ability of every believer to interpret the Bible without a mediating authority – and Pentecostal view that the Spirit can work and speak through all who have received the baptism of the Spirit were able to act as counterbalances to my father’s abusive preaching.

It is my hope and prayer that as we consider this latest failed apocalypse, we will give some thought to the ways in which religious faith can be abusive, and do all in our power to remove those abusive aspects from ourselves and from our own faith communities.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Book of Exorcisms

Deacon Michael Shirk has put together a Book of Exorcisms, published by Rene Vilatte Press, our jurisdiction's publishing concern. It is an exquisitely typeset, hardbound book. Here is purchase information:

The following is the Preface I wrote for it.

The Independent Catholic Christian Church, along with many other jurisdictions in the Independent Sacramental Movement, maintains the use of the traditional minor orders, including that of Exorcist, as steps in the journey toward the priesthood. One of our priests, Mother Sandra Hutchinson, as she prepared to be ordained an Exorcist, had this to say: “Of all the minor orders, this is the one that intimidates me the most. Evil is real, and this is a direct challenge to it. But God is real too, I know that. And I'm looking forward to it as well." And that sums up the order pretty well – we must acknowledge the reality of evil – in ourselves, in others, in the fallen world. But we must also acknowledge the sovereignty of God, recognizing that God is able to overcome evil. In Christ’s victory over sin, death, and evil through the Crucifixion and Resurrection, God has, once for all, triumphed over evil. The war is over – God has won, and evil has lost. But battles remain, and as those called to serve God in ordained ministry, we must be ready to confront evil in order to do the work God has called us to do, through the power and authority of Jesus Christ.

The rites in this book, which Deacon Michael Shirk has prepared, contain liturgical acts of exorcism. This book is intended to be given to the person being ordained as an Exorcist as the act of ordination. These rites are of two kinds: first, ritual exorcisms that take place during the blessing of certain created things, such as holy water, and the exorcisms that take place to prepare a person to receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism; and second, the extraordinary exorcism of a person who is obsessed or possessed by demons, traditionally called an “energumen”. In the Independent Catholic Christian Church, anyone who has been ordained to the minor order of Exorcist, and certainly all Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, may perform the first class of exorcisms, the ritual exorcisms. The exorcism of an energumen should only be undertaken by a Priest under the direction of the Bishop, except in case of emergency.

We are grateful to Deacon Michael Shirk for compiling the rites in this book. It is my hope and prayer that this book may assist the clergy of this jurisdiction and others in confronting and ridding the world of evil.

+Timothy Michael Cravens Feast of St. Gabriel the Archangel, 2011

Presiding Bishop

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Road to Emmaus

Luke 24:13 - 35 And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread.

O God, whose blessed Son did manifest himself to his disciples in the breaking of bread; Open, we pray thee, the eyes of our faith, that we may behold thee in all thy works; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP)

Most of us are aware of the popular “Footprints” poem, in which a person looks back along the beach and sees a couple of sets of footprints, and asks God, “Whose are the second set of footprints?” and God replies, “Those are mine, my child”. When the person looks back and sees that for the more difficult sections of the walk, there is only one set of footprints, they ask God, “Why weren’t you there with me during the more difficult sections?” God replies, “I carried you in my arms during those sections, my child”. It’s sappy, for sure, but it raises an interesting spiritual truth – often, we are unable to recognize the actions and presence of God while they are happening, and can only see them when we look back over our lives.

In today’s gospel, we have a similar situation. The disciples are scattered and in chaos. For three years, they had been following Jesus, whom many had thought to be the Messiah, and then their hopes were dashed when he was arrested and executed by the Roman authorities. But after a few days, several of the women who followed him claimed to have seen him alive, and then others went and found an empty tomb where he was buried. Cleopas and another disciple were on the road to Emmaus discussing all of this, when a stranger joined them, who seemed to be the only person in Jerusalem and the surrounding area who had not heard. Astonishingly enough, he began to discuss the scriptures with them, explaining how the death and resurrection of Jesus fulfilled prophecies and had to happen the way they did to fulfill God’s plan.

Then, as they turned aside at Emmaus, he began to leave them, but they persuaded him to turn aside and share a meal with them. And then, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them – and suddenly, their eyes were opened and they recognized him as Christ, and then he left them. Like the person in the Footprints poem, they were only able to perceive his presence as they looked back and remembered how their hearts had burned as he explained the scriptures to them, and how they had recognized him in the breaking of the bread.

We are presented in this reading with at least three ways in which Christ comes to us. First, rather implicitly in this passage, he comes to us when we are gathered as a Christian community. The two disciples were together talking about Christ, and he joined them, and was present with them in the discussions of the scriptures. Of course, it is good for us to read the Bible alone, and we will be blessed by this practice if we engage in it regularly, but scripture is the church's treasure, and it is in our gathering together to read it, to hear it expounded through preaching, and to meditate on it that it will bear the most fruit. In addition to being present in our common life and in the scriptures, Christ is known to us in the breaking of the bread – the Eucharist.

But like the disciples, we may not always be conscious of Christ’s presence in these three means of grace, or in others. Life in community is difficult at times. We may find the scriptures hard to engage. And we are not going to have a mystically transcendent experience every time we receive Communion. But if we engage these spiritual practices over time, we will be able to look back, and realize that our hearts burned within us, that Christ was known to us in the breaking of the bread, and that through the difficulties of life, Christ carried us in his arms. As we continue in the Easter season, may we deepen our faithfulness to these practices.

Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen. (BCP)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

There can be nothing disordered about lifelong, committed covenanted love: Marriage, Religion, and Law

The following paragraphs will be included in a forthcoming academic book about church-state relations in a chapter on marriage equality. I will post more details once it is published.

The Independent Catholic Christian Church believes that Jesus Christ came to abolish the alienation and isolation separating people from God and one another. One source of this alienation is the rigid classification of people based on sex, sexual orientation, or parentage. We believe that ALL are invited by Christ to participate fully in the life of the church, regardless of sex or sexual orientation. We see this beautifully articulated in Galatians 3:28 -- "There is no longer Judean nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Our interpretation of this is that all Christians are to be treated equally as regards the sacraments -- which means that all marriages between two baptized persons entering into lifelong covenant are sacramental. There can be nothing disordered about lifelong, committed covenanted love -- and to declare as "disordered" a marriage because the partners are not of the "right" sex or ethnic heritage is to repudiate one of the central messages of reconciliation in the Gospel.

The Independent Catholic Christian Church is a creedally orthodox, scripturally based, and in many ways fairly traditional church. For our legislators to enshrine into law the doctrines of other churches and deny ours is to establish the Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, and Mormon denominations, among others, as quasi-official state religions and to deny our church the right to the free exercise of ours. As people of faith who are very serious about our walk with Christ and our prayer lives, we deserve to have our voices heard equally with those of the Religious Right, who do not have a monopoly on the serious practice of religion. Every religious community should have the right to determine its own policies regarding who may and may not be married–I once met a rabbi who, in responding to my question about whether she would marry same-sex couples, replied without missing a beat "As long as they're both Jewish"–but the state should offer civil marriage to all adult couples willing to commit their lives to one another, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Easter Vigil Sermon

Readings: Gen. 1:1 - 2:4a; Gen. 7:1 -5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13; Gen. 22:1-18; Ex. 14:10-31; 15:20-21; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10

Our lives are defined by our stories.

I have two cats, whom I adopted when they were six. Charles quickly adapted to his new home, because his story is that humans are there to pet him, feed him, give him treats, and entertain him. He often sits in on premarital sessions with couples planning to get married, and will sit with new people who enter the apartment. Once, when our priest in Boston was being ordained to one of the minor orders that were part of her journey to the priesthood, we held the ordination in the chapel in my home, and eight people were there. As we gathered in my living room before the service, Charles sat in the middle of the room, clearly convinced that the gathering was in his honor.

In contrast, Allie lives by a story that tells her that humans are out to SKIN HER ALIVE!!! She spent the first two weeks in her new home behind the refrigerator, and the next two weeks on top of the kitchen cabinets. It was six months before she stopped cringing in fear every time I walked in her direction. And she would run under the bed any time another person besides me entered the apartment. Clearly, there was some trauma of some sort in her past that has caused her deep distrust of people.

Like my cats, our lives are defined by our stories.

We may believe that our lives are defined by the abuse we received at the hands of a parent or significant other. We may believe our lives are destined to follow the script of our illnesses, our limitations, our flaws. We may believe that the mistakes we have made – the sins we have committed – determine the end of our stories.

Our lives are defined by our stories.

But something interesting has happened in the three years Allie the tabby cat has lived with me. People have stayed in my guestroom who have been kind and gentle to her, and by the next morning, she has slowly begun to walk up and rub up against them. More recently, she has even begun to remain in place when friends who are frequently here have gently leaned over to pet her (or in Fr. Joseph’s case, brush her hair). She even came and smelled the boots of one friend who came over for the first time, and rubbed her head against his jeans as he gently scratched her ears. She has begun to accept, however tentatively and hesitantly, that perhaps her story is not that humans are out to SKIN HER ALIVE!!!, and that she must run and hide lest they succeed, but rather that humans are there to feed her, give her milk, pet her, and take care of her.

I love the Easter Vigil because of the salvation history we hear in the readings from the Old Testament. Some of the best stories in the Old Testament are in there. We hear how God created the heavens and the earth, and that it was good, and then created humankind, and it was VERY good. We hear how, despite the wickedness that led God to destroy humankind, a remnant was saved, and that God made a covenant with humankind never to destroy the earth in that way again. We hear how God delivered the Israelites from slavery by bringing them across the Red Sea. We hear how God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son – a son that Abraham and Sarah only received in advanced old age, after they had given up all hope – and that Abraham was ready to make the sacrifice, but the angel of the Lord stopped him at the last moment, and provided another sacrifice. We hear how Ezekiel, depressed in seeing a valley filled with dry bones, was given a vision of the bones connecting to one another to form skeletons, and then saw those skeletons being covered with muscles, and sinews, and flesh, and skin – and then he saw those bodies filled with the spirit of God so that they might LIVE once again.

And we know that those stories are not just about people who lived thousands of years ago, those stories are OUR stories.

And then the lights come on, and the alleluias ring out, and we hear that marvelous epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans – all of us who have been baptized into Jesus Christ have been baptized into his death – and that, just as God raised Christ from death to new life – so we will be raised from death to new life as well, both in our daily lives, and at the end of time, when we will experience the physical resurrection that Christ experienced that Saturday night nearly two thousand years ago. And the gospel describes the women discovering that Christ is no longer in the tomb, but alive, when he appears to them. And then we experience his living, risen presence through the gifts of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist.

But these are not just stories that we hear in church and forget about, no – these are TRUE stories that change OUR stories.

Our stories are no longer just stories of death, sorrow, sickness, sadness, sin – although they are still there. Our stories are now stories of how we experienced these thing – and then our lives are transformed into new lives of triumph over sin, sickness, death – because we have been made part of the victorious risen Christ through baptism. And these new stories RE-define our lives -- from stories of defeat into stories of victory.

My tabby cat Allie is not very bright – and she’s just a cat – but even she has begun to accept that her story has changed from a story of fear to a story of love.

As we begin this joyful Easter season, may we embrace our new stories of life and resurrection lived through the one True Story of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Alleluia, Christ is risen – He is risen indeed, Alleluia!