Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Let Us See the Statue Inside the Marble

Hebrews 11:1-16

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  For by it the elders obtained a good report.  Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.  By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.  By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God.  But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.  By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.   By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise:  For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.  Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised.  Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable.  These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.  For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.  And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.  But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

Michelangelo was perhaps the greatest sculptor the world has ever known.  His “David” and “Pieta” continue to inspire millions even today.  He is reputed to have said that “every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

In today’s Epistle, we hear that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  We are called, as Christians, to see not merely with our outward eyes, but to see with the eyes of faith.  Where others may see only a rough block of stone, we are called to see a beautiful statue waiting to be set free. 

We live in a world filled with evil – war, poverty, violence, discrimination.  Pick up a newspaper any day, and you will read many terrible things.  But by faith, we are called to see a world created by God – a world in which God’s peace and justice reign.  We are called to see in each human being not only the sinner, but a creature of God, with the potential to lead a holy life and to do great things.

It’s hard to see with that faith – and I would suggest that even if we can’t see the statue inside the block of stone, that we trust that God can see what we cannot.  In time, we can trust that God will open our eyes so that we, too, can see the magnificent work of art.

But it is not enough to see with faith, or trust that God can – we are called to act on our faith, and take up hammer and chisel to start revealing the statue trapped in the marble – even if we cannot yet see it ourselves.

Abraham was called to journey to the Promised Land from the city he lived in, and did so without having seen it.  Even when he arrived, he lived in tents and did not see the promise fully revealed.

God calls us to see the statue trapped in the big, ugly rock – but God also calls us to be a co-creator by putting our faith into action.  We are called to work for a more just world – working to end injustice, working for the recognition of the dignity of every human being, working to bring healing to the sick, comfort to prisoners, justice to the oppressed.

But is it not enough to see with the eyes of faith, and to take up chisel and hammer to act on our faith – we are also called to persevere in our faith, even when we cannot see the results.

As it says in our Epistle, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”  So we, too, are called to persevere in our service to God and humankind, even though the full reign of God’s peace and justice is not likely to come to fruition in our lifetime.  Just as we are called to set out in our journey of faith when we cannot see the statue in the marble, so we are called to continue our faith in God even if we cannot see the statue emerge as a result of our labors.  We trust that God will take our efforts, and those of others called by God, some perhaps not even born, and use them to bring forth a statue even more magnificent than anything created by Michelangelo.

It is easy to become weary – to find it difficult to keep our faith and hope alive as we work to spread the Gospel.  But we are called to persevere.  Even when we find it hardest to trust, God is working to release the statue from the stone.

So let us see with the eyes of faith.  Let us take up chisel and hammer, and act on that faith.  And let us persevere in serving God, confident that one day we will reach that heavenly city prepared for all of God’s people, and behold the beautiful works God has brought forth from the rock.  Amen.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The bishop of Rome and the Gays

I try not to comment on the internal affairs of other denominations, but given the widespread confusion over the recent remarks of Francis, the bishop of Rome, on gay priests, I think it would be good to offer a reality check. He is talking about refraining from judgment of homosexual priests who have repented of the "sin" of gay sexuality and agreed to be celibate. He is not addressing openly gay people, including married same-sex couples. Just a few weeks ago, in France, he condemned the French legislators for passing same-sex marriage. The American bishops of his denomination are stridently opposing same-sex civil marriage in this country.

What members of the Roman Catholic denomination believe and practice in their own houses of worship is up to them, just as the Independent Catholic Christian Church to which I belong does offer marriage to all committed couples making a life-long covenant, regardless of the sex and gender makeup of the couple (and refuses to be in communion with churches that do otherwise, or that withhold ordination from women or lgbt Christians). But when they actively try to deny MY church, and the many other Christian churches and other faith communities who practice same-sex marriage, the right to practice our religion, with our marriages denied recognition by the state, as both bishop Francis and the bishops that answer to him have done, he has become an enemy of freedom of conscience.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


As the son of a Southern Baptist minister, I looked forward to seeing the movie “Southern Baptist Sissies”, based on the play by Del Shores, at this year’s Q-Fest, Philadelphia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender film festival.  Mr. Shores was on hand afterward, as was the star, for a question and answer session.  While many in the audience seemed to love the movie, I found myself left unsatisfied and empty by the film.

Del Shores, like me, is the son of a Southern Baptist minister.  He has done a reasonably decent job of communicating many aspects of the Southern Baptist experience, in particular the single-minded focus most have on whether or not someone is “saved”, since one’s eternal destiny is based on whether or not one has had this emotional experience of conversion, and the opposition to homosexuality (although in my experience, it is even more rabid than he portrays).  The discussion the star has with his mother upon discovering his favorite teacher is Jewish, and therefore bound for hell since she has not accepted Jesus as her “personal Lord and Savior”, despite being a nice, good person, since being nice or good is unrelated to salvation in the Southern Baptist theology, was a very good window into this doctrine and how it plays out in the lives of Southern Baptists.  The music was for the most part well-done – I found myself singing along to many of the hymns.  And the quoting of scripture, with chapter and verse, was certainly something all Southern Baptists and former Southern Baptists can relate to.

The play is really two plays – one about four gay young men who grow up in a Southern Baptist church, and the other about two aging ex-Southern Baptist alcoholics who become drinking buddies in a gay bar, one a gay man and one the sister of a gay man.  Apart from sharing a pianist, who seems to double as the pianist in the bar and in the local Southern Baptist congregation, and a couple of tangential connections to the young men which seem forced to me, the two plays have little in common other than an attempt to comment on the damage that the Southern Baptist religion wreaks on people.  The alcoholics, played brilliantly by Leslie Jordan and Dale Dickey, were complex, layered individuals, with much witty dialogue, as well as much depth of insight.  Most of the best lines in the play were spoken by one of these characters. 

But the two plays, although meant to work together, didn’t.  The film was too long as a result.  And I’m sure the bar scenes were meant to illumine the scenes focused on the church, but the only illumination I experienced was a spotlight on the cardboard clich├ęs that were the four boys and others in the Baptist congregation.  And I was particularly troubled by two aspects of the play.

First, one major doctrinal difference between Southern Baptists on the one hand and Roman Catholics and Mormons on the other is that, while the latter two denominations each hold themselves out to be the “One True Church”, outside of which there can be no real hope of salvation (I realize Roman Catholics have softened this doctrine in recent decades, but only for those who have never been RC), the Southern Baptists, while emphasizing the necessity of church, nonetheless do not regard themselves as the “One True Church”.  The preacher and the church are not infallible – it is the Bible which is infallible for Southern Baptists, and leaving a church that is insufficiently “biblical” for one that is more so is a time-honored tradition.  So while it is very difficult for Roman Catholics or Mormons to find a new church, even while abandoning their old one, because of their deeply held belief that theirs is the only one, many gay Southern Baptists find their way to Episcopal churches, or the MCC, or other more progressive churches.  Shores’ failure to explore the quite common phenomenon of people finding ways of reconciling their sexuality and their Christian faith distorts the gay Southern Baptist experience.

More deeply troubling was the suicide.  Andrew is shown as always feeling alone and unloved, but when he commits suicide, he finally finds peace in the arms of a lover who is revealed to be God.  I worry that this, however unintentionally, glorifies suicide, particularly when compared with the bleak lives of the other characters.  That is NOT a message we want to communicate at all.

None of the other gay men in the play end up with a male partner, or even, seemingly, a circle of close friends, but are all alone and leading broken lives.  One marries a woman and is filled with rage as an “ex-gay” preacher.  Another is the aging, sad alcoholic from the bar (played by Leslie Jordan), who tells Andrew, in the only interaction between the bar play and the church play, not to become like him on the very night Andre kills himself.  There is the sad pianist, almost completely silent, except for a couple of throwaway lines put in for comic relief.  There is the vapid and shallow drag queen (played very well by RuPaul Drag Race veteran Willem, but with the character bearing no resemblance to the strong and powerful RuPaul, who would have lovingly but firmly snapped Andrew into shape as a proud gay man).  And finally, there is the star, whose rage prevents him from creating a life for himself, only imagining a different world.  He does in the end find a vague love-based spirituality (unsurprisingly, the agnosticShores, in the Q&A session, holds this up as “spirituality” vs. “religion”).  While the last hymn and his spiritual awakening are meant to communicate hope and acceptance, there is no actualization of that hope in his real life, only in his imagination, and so it rang quite hollow for me.

And so rather than finding the message of the play to be one of hope, I found it to be bleak, and tragic, and sad.  And while my childhood was indeed bleak, tragic, and sad, in large part due to the Southern Baptist religions, my life got considerably better once I left, and I worry that that message is absent from this film.