Benediction Online

Monday, April 29, 2013

Who then shall we hate?

Acts 11:1-18Revelation 21:1-6

What wonderful readings we have today – the vision of a New Jerusalem – a new way of living - where Jesus’ words, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” are fully lived out. And the reading from Acts which shows us what a challenge loving one another was for the early church, just as it continues to be a challenge for us today.

Humans are not very good at loving one another. In fact, some theorists have suggested that the main function of civilization is to stop us murdering each other out of envy and rage. So Jesus’ new commandment was truly revolutionary, and it’s still revolutionary two thousand years later.
When Gentiles began to be welcomed into the new community of Jesus it created problems – the religious Jews had always kept themselves carefully separate from non-Jews, but now some of them were crossing the boundary. They were breaking the traditional purity laws.

We still have purity codes today, but ours are much less conscious, in fact we usually think of them as just common sense, or the way things are. In times of social upheaval purity codes get challenged, usually accompanied by controversial debates and political battles. Interracial marriage is an example in recent memory. For a white person and a black person to marry was to offend against the purity code of the time. Similarly, gay relationships offend against the purity codes of many people today. In the last thirty years we have seen this gradually changing until today a majority of Americans support marriage for gay couples.
It has always been part of the role of religion in society to protect purity codes and to uphold social arrangements around marriage and family organizations, so it’s not surprising that the Church has struggled with these questions, just as the early church struggled with the full inclusion of Gentiles. In the reading from Acts we heard that Peter was criticized for his acceptance of Gentiles, and so he had to explain to them step by step that first God had told him to defy the purity laws, and then secondly he found that God was already blessing these people.

Our experience as Episcopalians has been similar. We have found that God has been blessing us through the ministry of gay, lesbian and transgender people – and we have gradually realized that God blesses all of us - people of different ethnicities, people of different abilities, people of different skin tones, people of different sexual orientation, of different gender identity – even, dare I say it – people of different religions.
Which leaves us in a very difficult position.

Who is there left to hate?

If there is no-one left to hate, what will politicians and media pundits do? Love and good news never sold papers. If there is no one for us to hate, no one we are willing to blame and scapegoat, then politicians will have to find an entirely new strategy for getting us to support their agendas. No longer will we be willing to demonize foreign leaders, no longer will we be willing to mobilize to try to prevent one party or another from gaining power. No longer will we be willing to put up with partisan gridlock or with policies which give more power to the already powerful and more money to the already rich. Our whole financial and political system would have to change.

Can we imagine a world without hate? It might begin to look just a little like the New Jerusalem, the city where God makes all things new…

But let us not get too carried away. Hatred is very subtle. It isn’t always in your face. In fact, very often, especially for those of us who have grown up knowing that Jesus told us to love one another, it can be very hard to get a handle on. It comes out in little ways, in jokes made at someone else’s expense; in holding grudges and nursing grievances. It turns anger at injustice into a desire for revenge on the perpetrators. It turns grief into a demand for retribution. It infiltrates our minds in such a way that it seems quite reasonable. Hatred, fueled by fear, leads quite nice people to sanction violence and even torture – provided it happens at a distance.

Hatred allows us to justify striking back when we are hurt. Which is exactly what Jesus did NOT do. When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane he didn’t strike back. When he was in front of Pilate he didn’t cooperate but he didn’t resist violently. In fact, Jesus was the model of non-violent resistance. And he went one step further… he didn’t just avoid violence, Jesus forgave those who betrayed him, those who persecuted him, those who killed him.

Jesus and hate simply do not belong in the same sentence.

As disciples of Jesus, we get to obey his commandment to love, and that means we have to forgive and to do that we have to give up our habit of hatred.

It’s not going to be easy, because our society is riddled through and through with hatred, anger and violence. It’s in our newscasts, our TV programs, our facebook posts…It’s inside our minds.
But taking up love and giving up hatred is what it really means to be an inclusive church.

Inclusive sounds warm and wonderful but that’s only part of the picture. If we are to be truly inclusive, if we are to build the reign of God on earth, if we are to follow Jesus then we have to find a way to change, and to change radically. Which means hard, careful work. It means examining the way we do things to make sure that we are not leaving groups of people out in the cold, that we are not disempowering someone else in order to empower ourselves. It means welcoming people who really are different from us.

It’s not going to be comfortable. If you think being an inclusive church is going to be church just like it’s always been but with more people, then you need to think again. Because those people whom God blesses just like she blesses you, may want to sit in your seat; they may want to change the hymns; they may even, heaven forbid, decide to change the prayer book.

The early church wasn’t at all sure that they wanted to include Gentiles and the debate went on for quite a while -  just like the Episcopal church today still isn’t quite sure that it wants to include women, latinos, gays, lesbians, African-Americans, Cubans, transpeople, deaf people… I could go on and on.

But if we take Jesus’ words seriously, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” If we get serious about being Jesus’ disciples; if we get serious about replacing hate with loving and forgiving, then we will be doing more than creating an inclusive church, we will be building the new Jerusalem.

“And the home of God will be among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God herself will be with them; she will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

Friday, April 26, 2013

Come out - again

The leaders of the Jewish people were trying to push Jesus into a damning admission which would give them the opportunity to accuse him of a major crime. They wanted him to declare that he was the Messiah so that they could shout treason and get rid of him. Not only was Jesus was a threat to their authority among the Jews, but his ideas might make trouble for them with the Roman authorities. They didn’t want the boat rocked.
Yet in typical fashion, Jesus does not give them the answer they want. He says instead “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” It’s a familiar idea in Jesus’ teaching – don’t just listen to what people say but look at what they do, at how they live their lives – are they becoming more holy, more just, more compassionate or not? Jesus’ flock are the ones who are listening - those who are taking his teaching and his example and are using them to make the reign of God a reality in their lives and in the lives of the community around them.
Each one of us is called to be part of the flock. Each one of us is called to testify to the power of Jesus’ love in our lives by the way that we live. And we are being watched. Just as Jesus was watched, so we his followers are watched.
I think that’s especially true for those of us who are lesbian, gay transgender or bisexual, or those who are under thirty-five. It used to be that it was really hard to come out in the church – now for many of us it’s harder to come out to our friends and acquaintances outside the church. We are all being watched – and more often than not, the church is being found wanting.
People say they don’t want to be part of institutional religion because of the hypocrisy – and there is plenty of that. I understand that Edward Peters, a Catholic leader, recently said that Catholics who support same-gender marriage should not try to receive communion and if they do so, it should be denied them. This is just one more example of the kind of behavior that is getting a lot of media attention and is driving people away from our churches. We know that’s not what Episcopalians think, but most folk don’t make distinctions between one church and another but lump us all together in their minds.
Which means that we have to be even more aware of doing works which “testify to the Father.” The things we do are probably not going to be things that land us on the front page of the Washington Post, they’re more likely to be quiet actions of love and kindness, which grow out of a deep spiritual connection with our Abba. They’re more likely to be things which don’t stand out but which contribute to the deep well-being of our world.
And in the strange world of our God they’ll prove to be more important than the bold statements that make the headlines. God did not choose to incarnate in Rome, at the center of the Empire. God did not choose to incarnate in a wealthy, prominent family. No, God chose to incarnate in a small nation which has always been at the center of international trouble, to a small unconventional family in a small town huddled in a barn. God did not choose a flashy well-understood act to redeem the world, but instead allowed Godself to get killed in an ignominious way which no-one really understands, even to this day. And when Jesus was resurrected it wasn’t in front of crowds of people, it wasn’t in the Sanhedrin or Pilate’s palace, rather he appeared to his disciples in ones and twos and small groups.
So never let us imagine that small things don’t make a difference. In God’s kingdom it’s the small things that have the greatest impact. Sometimes we can see that they do, but more often their results are hidden.
Fifteen years ago the idea that gay or lesbian couples could ever be legally married was almost laughable. But today it’s becoming almost commonplace. We have just seen France legalize gay marriage; there’s a bill in the British Parliament as we speak; Rhode Island is on its way to becoming the 10th state to legalize gay marriage and the Supreme Court is considering the question. Moreover, the majority of Americans now think it’s ok. How far we have come in just a short time. There are many things that fed into that astonishingly rapid change, but the most important is the quiet witness of gay and lesbian people coming out to their friends, and coming out in their workplaces, and coming out in their churches.
We still need to come out today. But this time we’re not coming out as gay but coming out as Christian. Just as we had to battle public prejudice when we came out as gay, today we have to battle public prejudice as we admit that we too are Christian. And just as we had to tell people that we’re gay so we need to tell people that we follow the God who loves all people equally, even the homophobes – it’s not enough to hope that they’ll pick up the hints, that they’ll follow the clues and draw the right conclusions – we have to take our courage in our hands and testify to the Father.
What has made the difference for gays, lesbians and transgender people is that as we have come out the fantasy of the evil homosexual who is out to take your children and your marriage away has had to abate. It’s not gone altogether but it is less and less possible to maintain as more and more people know gay or lesbian people and know that they like and respect them.
It’s time now for all of us who hear Jesus and follow him to do the same thing for the image of the Christian as judgmental and limiting. It’s time for us to be seen to live lives that are joyful and generously open-hearted. It’s time for us to make sure that in everything we do we are glorifying God. It’s time for us to testify to the Father by our lives but no less by our words.
Each one of us influences a small group of people a lot and a lot of people a little, just like Jesus influenced the disciples a lot and the Jewish people a little. It’s time to use the influence that we have. It’s time to show that we belong to Jesus’ flock by testifying to the Father in our conversations as well as our lives.
It’s time for us, gay straight or neither to dare to come out as Christian!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sheep with Megaphones

A sermon preached at the Memorial Church of the Good Shepherd, Philadelphia

What a delight it is to be here with you today on Good Shepherd Sunday! My thanks to your rector Jon for giving me the privilege of sharing with you this morning.

I love the image of the good shepherd. It is deeply comforting to think that God cares for you and for me as intimately as a Middle Eastern shepherd cared for his sheep. Jesus says that those of us who are enrolled in his reign - those of us who are like his sheep -  hear his voice and follow him. That’s a sweet image.
But there are downsides to being a sheep. As well as ticks and fleas and burrs and the smell of raw lanoline, there are… the other sheep. Biblical sheep always live in flocks – you’ll remember Jesus talked about the good shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the flock to fend for themselves while he searched for and brought back the one who was missing. You don’t get much alone time if you’re a sheep.

I grew up in the flock. My particular fold was a small Anglo-Catholic parish in the Church of England. Then I went away to college and at college I found out things about myself that made me think there was no place for me among the faithful. I found that I was gay, and though for many years I prayed and studied and prayed some more, God did not choose to make me heterosexual. So I stayed away. I stayed away for over a decade.  I continued to hear God’s voice - the good shepherd did not let me go. But I was sure that I would never be welcome in the flock again – that somehow, however discreet I was, that I would smell different and they would sniff me out. Sometimes I went to church, sitting at the back, close to the exit. But I always left quickly, afraid to get involved.

I am glad to say that, in most parts of this country, things are very different now. We have realized that for decades good and godly Episcopalians have been lesbian, gay and transgender and that that has not stopped the good shepherd calling them and using them in powerful ministry. The courage of those who have stepped forward and said “Yes I’m gay” or “My loved one is gay and that’s Ok with me and with God” has led to tremendous change in this Episcopal Church of ours. I am not afraid to tell you that God has called me to be in committed relationship with another woman for over twenty years. I am not afraid that I will be cast out of the flock.

But I am one of the lucky ones.

There are still many, many gay, lesbian and tranz people who don’t really believe that there’s a place for them in the flock. They may hear the good shepherd calling them but they’re not about to come out of hiding because they don’t think the other sheep will like them, let alone love them. It’s easy for us to say “I wonder why we don’t see more gay people, more poor people, more immigrant people, more disabled people, when we’d welcome them just like we welcome each other”. It’s easy for us to say that, safe within the fold. But they can’t hear us. We’re not making enough noise. We’re not making it clear that God loves everyone, no exceptions and so do we!

In fact, there are sheep in other folds who have megaphones which broadcast the idea that God loves everyone as long as they look and act like straight white people. They have done such a good job getting their message across that ours isn’t getting heard.

One of the problems is the noise that goes on in the heads of many gay, lesbian and tranz people. I know that Jon has told you that today is the launch of a short tour during which I am visiting churches and groups in the north-east to talk about the work of Integrity, the gay and lesbian ministry in the Episcopal Church and to introduce my new book, “The Thorn in the Flesh.” One of the reasons that I undertook the research and wrote the book is that I needed to quieten the voices in my own head. Even after ten years in the Episcopal Church, even after being ordained as a priest, there were still times when the idea that God didn’t really like me that way I am became a deafening sound. At those times, I thought that maybe those people who say that being gay and living in a loving relationship is against God’s will were right.

By taking a close look at what has happened since Louie Crew first started a newsletter called Integrity Forum for gay Episcopalians in 1974; by carefully charting the to and fro of argument and persuasion, the political ploys, the declarations of crisis and predictions of disaster, I have concluded that our church has not been engaged in a forty year theological debate about God’s reign but in trying to protect itself from the change which is happening in the whole of our society as patriarchy gradually gives way to a more egalitarian and inclusive world – what Dr. King called “the beloved community.”

As I look around this church this morning I see people who are beloved of God. People who have been called to love and to serve in this fold. I see sheep who hear the good shepherd’s voice calling them loud and clear, and I rejoice.

But Jesus told many parables, and he made it quite clear that those who are called and who are safe in the fold have a responsibility to get out into the streets and share God’s amazing and unconditional love with those who can’t believe it’s for them. I don’t know what this looks like for you. I don’t know whom God is calling you to love for him. Perhaps there’s a house for developmentally delayed adults in your neighborhood who need people to love them for the unique humans that they are.  Maybe you are being called to provide hospitality for students at the university who are a long way from home. I do know that there are thousands of gay and lesbian people living in this city who have no idea that they are welcome here. I do hope that this summer you will reach out to them during Gay Pride and let them know that the Good Shepherd is calling them too. I also hope that you will seek out ways to actively meet and serve those who are gay, lesbian and transgender and whose ability to hear has been damaged.

“Build it and they will come” is only partially true. Our welcome to all of God’s people cannot be a passive waiting with open arms but must be an active seeking out end engaging with those whom God is calling but who have no idea that there really is a place and a welcome for them. Just this week I had an email from a person wondering whether she or he would be welcome in my parish. Why? Because in private he likes to dress as a woman. For many years he has heard the sheep with megaphones announcing that dressing like a woman is an abomination unto the Lord. He is afraid it is true, and yet he longs, she longs, to be part of the beloved community and to share God’s love with God’s people.

It is the tremendous privilege and challenge of those of us who have found a safe place within the fold to get up and go out with the shepherd as he seeks those who are lost, as he looks for those who are hiding, for those whose ears are filled with the dull roar of rejection, and then to love them and to witness to God’s amazing love for us.

For it is as each one of us allows the warmth of that love to penetrate even to the parts of ourselves that have been most damaged by rejection, by loss and by fear, that Jesus’ resurrection life bursts forth and we can truly say, “Alleluia, the Lord is Risen.”