Sunday, August 23, 2009

As For Me and My Household...


Friday afternoon, I sat with my laptop in my lap and watched, with better fidelity than the participants had, the Church Wide Assembly of the ELCA not only affirm the Human Sexuality Statement with a few amendments and then go ahead and provide a way for Lesbian and Gay pastors in partnered relationships to serve as rostered leaders in the ELCA. I watched the discussion, some of it very painful. I heard some leaders of congregations say that if this passed, their congregations would leave the ELCA. I also heard others speak for Lesbian and Gay clergy that have served their congregations faithfully and plead that they be allowed to have the partnered relationships of their heterosexual brothers and sisters.

As one who is unfamiliar with the way that the ELCA does business on the national level, I was moved by the primacy of prayer throughout the whole discussion. I was awed by the candor and the honesty of the discussions. Quite frankly, after my experience in the Episcopal Church, I was surprised that the resolution to allow partnered lesbian and gay clergy to serve the Church passed the way it did. And the audible gasp that came from the Church-wide body was a sign that I believe that most did not believe it would pass either. Those who attended the meeting afterward said that they felt a movement of something on the floor of the meeting. They identified it with the Holy Spirit. Those who were opposed, I am sure did not think it was from that source!

I immediately sent off an email to Bishop Jerge to offer my assistance if there were congregations who needed to talk with a gay pastor to calm their fears about this legislation. I really offered her the efforts of YOU, the congregation that went out on a limb and called a lesbian pastor even though some of you are still uncomfortable with it.

I have not spoken on the “gay issue” from the pulpit except in passing. And if I am making you squirm by talking about it now, please bear with me. I figured that like being one of the early women priests when I was first ordained, I didn’t have speak about it. I just needed to live into the calling God had given me in being your pastor.

I am not comfortable being out. I grew up knowing that I was different, but at a time when being out in Texas could have been a death sentence. It was a fearful way to live. I ignored my own sexuality by entering the convent and making vows of celibacy. I have lived by those vows knowing that I could not serve Christ in his Church in any other way, but I would not recommend it. Celibacy cuts off intimacy—not just sex, but that whole realm of tenderness that comes when two people come to respect and honor one another with their whole beings. I am thankful that the ELCA and the Episcopal Church have chosen to open the ordained ministry to those whose lives are directed by Christ to live in monogamous, life-long relationship as gay people and to live within the confines of what we have always declared as marriage.

The Church-wide Assembly did go so far as to allow the blessing of same-sex unions. We may have to deal with this in the civil realm as there is legislation already passed in some states to allow for same-sex marriage. It will not be long before that is upon us in the state of NY. What we do here at St. Luke’s will be the decision of the congregation, not the bishop and not the pastor or even the council. Bishop Jerge’s wisdom is that it is the congregation’s mission to support people in their lives together. So if it becomes an issue in this congregation, it will be the topic of a congregational meeting. And we will make that decision together.

So what does this new law in the church have to do with the gospel? If we look at the reading from Joshua we hear the successor of Moses saying to the Israelites who have come into the Promised Land to make a decision. He outlines all the things that God has done for them and then asks them to make a decision to either follow the gods of the Moabites or to follow the Lord. And Joshua declares that as for him and his household, they will follow the Lord.

It takes a decision to follow God. It takes an act of the will to follow God. Yes, the grace to follow Christ is given by God, but somewhere each and every one of us has had to say “I will follow the Lord”. It is the way that we respond to the grace that is given in faith. It is what underpins a covenant. A covenant is basically an agreement between God and the faithful. Worship and allegiance is what God asks of us, and God will provide protecction and love.

There are those in the ELCA and those in the Episcopal Church who will leave our traditions simply because gay folk are being held to the same standard in their relationships as heterosexual relationship are held to. They may leave because they cannot abide the thought of being led by a lesbian or a gay man or as is the case with many of the opposing clergy, having to be collegial with us.

It has nothing to do with morality, it has to do with having to get used to the idea that what was thought to be foreign is really very much a part of them. They blame the “ELCA” or TEC as being too worldly, unwilling to hear the hard sayings of Jesus, but what I saw in that video of the Church Wide Assembly, was folks just like us grappling with what it means to be Church in the world today. The ELCA is US. Those who would leave, are just going to have to deal with the "US" of themselves where ever they go.

In the Gospel today we hear the last of this great discourse on the Eucharist. We find that with the thought of eating Christ’s body and blood, some are unable to hear the call to community in that act. Some of Jesus’ followers leave because the thought of eating the body of Christ and the Blood of the covenant is contrary to what Kosher laws had taught for centuries. They cannot hear the newness that Christ is calling them to in Holy Communion.

Some denominations so discriminate against gay folk that they do not allow them to receive Holy Communion. Some continue to find truth in biblical passages that that are so arcane that they cannot be intelligently rendered even in Hebrew. They cannot find in Christ’ love for the Gentile or those outside of traditional Judaism, the image to accept the newness embodied in those who are different from them.
Faced with the same kind of rejection, Jesus asks his apostles if they too will leave because of his opening faith to that which is new and different. And Peter answers for all of them. “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”

There it is! There is the conundrum! It is Christ who has the word of life. It is this tribe of followers who listen to his voice about accepting others who are different, about finding the gifts of ministry in a group that was once far off who are now are brought near. It is in this gospel of hope that God welcomes all strangers, all those who are willing to make that decision to follow the Lord. We as Church have no other place to go—-no other way to live. We have a Way to follow—Christ’s Way-—a way that says that we can love one another and support one another in our relationships, that we can entertain the new because of what God has wrought in the past. We have a way to live out our baptismal vows in ways that not only support what has been in the past but which takes us into the future.

I am humbled and freed by the actions of both the Episcopal Church and the ELCA this summer. I am astounded at their votes to reach out in loving ways to those who have been vilified which drag our churches into a new millennium. I have been humbled and freed by this congregation in your willingness to accept me. Last Sunday I signed a new one-year contract to continue my pastoral duties here at St. Luke’s. Because like you, I have no place else to go. The word of Christ’s eternal love is lived out here for you and me. AND AS FOR ME AND MY HOUSEHOLD, WE WILL FOLLOW THE LORD. AMEN

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The prolonged discussion of the sixth chapter of John over the past 5 weeks in the readings merits a hard look. In the liturgy, John gets fairly short shrift. Only short passages of John get used in the readings for Sundays. It is a shame because John is a book that is not only very readable, it is also one lush with theological concerns. The only problem with reading John is that it comes from a world-view that is different than ours. And one must read John with a commentary at hand to really glean what the writer meant about Jesus and the community of the Way that followed him.

Feeding of the 5 thousand: First we find Jesus’ miracle of feeding the thousands. It is one of the Signs used by John to give structure to his theology. The signs are not just miracles to entertain the crowds. They are signs of Jesus’ messiahship and his divinity. But it is also to show how Jesus is the new Moses. Jesus gives bread like God gives bread in the desert, the manna. But there is always something more in John. John writes his life of Jesus as if it were an onion—always just one more layer down in order to taste the sweetness.

I have often avoided the Gospel of John because of those layers. They are so hard to preach on. They can only really be “eaten”. The Gospel of John is like the ancient wisdom poets spoke—like honey from the comb. Reading John one must suspend one reality for the next in order to treasure the taste of the gospel.

Reading John is more of a submersion into a multilayered reality rather than the straight historical reading that one can get in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Just the way that John uses the Greek language allows one to savor the levels of meaning. In the passage for Sunday he makes the distinction in the Eucharist from the manna in the desert. The Jews (by this I mean those who were not willing to entertain Jesus as the messiah) ate manna in the desert and John uses a rather normal, polite word efagon to mean eat. But when he refers to eating the Body of the Eucharist, John uses a rather crude word—like an animal eating, trogo. It is as if the Eucharistic meal is primal. The Bread is the source of life. This ultimately is found to be contra-gnostic. But it gives a really gutsy understanding of what the Eucharist is about.

No wonder I have found such a primal understanding of my faith in that little ritual of breaking bread and drinking wine!

Monday, August 17, 2009

The fray that is called Church

Returning from vacation is much like starting a new school year, January 1st, or an anniversary. It is a time of renewed energy and purpose. To that end, I am going to try to post something daily on this site again. I have gotten quite lazy about addressing the issues of church, faith and daily living. The laziness often comes from fatigue but it also comes from a certain ennui that comes from being in the Church.

Both of our traditions have had national Church meetings this summer. The Episcopal Church had theirs in June. The Lutheran Church-Wide Assembly begins today. Church politics is something that many want to ignore or deny. But any organization has a political character to it. Whenever people are united in a specific cause, there are politics. But Church politics often seems to be somehow un-holy, or demeaning. Often I hear people cite “church politics” as the reason they don’t go to church. But what they are really saying is that they don’t want to deal with controversy.

Controversy is at the center of Church. It cannot be helped. Whenever someone who has faith discusses their faith with another there is likely to be controversy. Whenever we have those deep and abiding relationships with the Divine, we are likely to find that even our best friends have different ways of describing their own relationship with the Holy. When we talk about our experience, we want others to share our experience rather than entertain that their experience might be informative or enlighten us. And often we want to “win others to think the way we do” in order to reinforce our own relationship with God rather than listen to the unique experience of the other.

I must admit that one of the things that drew me to the Episcopal Church when I left Rome was their polity. I love the democratic process as it relates to the development of faith. I believe that groups of people can, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, come to faithful renderings of the path for the Church. I have been gratified by finding much of the same attitude in the ELCA. Of course, it takes lots of discussion, lots of listening and some political savvy to accomplish things in either Church on the governmental level. And yes, there are always those who lose. But the democratic system works, both in state and in church as a way to address the needs of folks and help us plot our way. It is part of the checks and balances of the church.

I have also heard others, usually those who are not winning, complain that God is not about majority decision. Of course that is true. God is about speaking not only to our individual hearts, but God is also about leading us in ways that we can share, not by edict but by mutual consent. In the Episcopal world, the delegates to convention talk online about the issues as they face the Church. Sometimes there is some tedium to the discussion; sometimes the rhetoric can be galling. Those who are not delegates can follow the conversations and may join in if another delegate will post it for them. I follow these conversations because it is a way for me to remain current in my own tradition. But also it makes me take seriously the opinions not my own. In no other church publication can I find this level of dialogue going on. I have not found this discussion in the ELCA. It may be that it is going on, but I just don’t know how to access it.

But all of this kind of discussion can tire one. It sometimes leaves me stale and unimaginative in the face of the liturgy, parish life, and the mundane life of a Christian. Sometimes the awesome responsibility of Church takes its toll in the way I live my life in Christ. In other word, I get grumpy!

This is why vacations are a necessity! Just sitting on the beach watching the waves roll in, no book, no discussion, no thoughts in my head, was remarkably refreshing. I am not generally a beach babe. My Celtic skin is too prone to sunburn to be comfortable, but this past week was temperate and kind. The sunburn isn’t bad and is actually turning sort of brown. The wind blew away the fatigue; the sun baked out the parish-based tension and I was cradled in God’s generous bounty. The rhetoric and the issues were drowned in the roar of waves.

Now I throw myself back into the fray that is called Church refreshed and renewed.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,

Sermon August 16, 2009

It is hard for us to think of how the primitive cultures of the world have understood what it meant to eat the ‘food of the gods.’ But there was always a sense of closeness with the god when there was food offered to the gods of a Middle Eastern culture. Sacrificing to the God Yahweh was something different, however. The early Jews understood that they were offering thanks to God for freeing them from Pharaoh’s slavery. Offering the first fruits, or gifts for thanksgiving were provided in which part of the animal or grain was given to the priest and part was used by the family usually for a feast. Not only was the act of sacrifice something for God, it required that the one offering the sacrifice be generous to his or her friends. It was a time to feast. Only for the holocaust or olah in Hebrew, the sin offering, was the whole animal burned completely.

There was a tradition in the eucharist—the thanksgiving offering, that such sacrifices were to be shared with friends and family. And so it is not surprising that the earliest liturgical developments in the Jewish-Christian communities revolve around the celebration of Passover—the time of the sacrifice in the Temple that reminded the people of their freedom given by God.

In John’s Gospel, we do not have the story of the Last Supper and the breaking of bread. It is found in Mt. Mk, and Lk but NOT in John. In Jn. we hear the story of the washing of the feet of the disciples. But what we do have in the Gospel of John is this long discourse on the Eucharist in which we find Jesus inviting his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood that we have been hearing over the past 4 weeks. For John, the liturgical act of taking, blessing, breaking and eating the bread and wine was not a memorial. It was the receiving of the flesh and blood of the Son of God. It was a feast but it was also the act of being intimate, of receiving Christ into one’s own body which was the mark of the Christian. It was a sacrament. It was an action that did what it purposed—it sanctified; it made holy. The grace that God conferred in the sacrament was what helped the Christian to be molded and transformed into the Body of Christ, the Church.

This liturgical act was misunderstood by many in the first centuries of Christianity. Accusations of cannibalism were levied at the early followers of Jesus. And Christians were persecuted for it. It was strange to the pagan believers of the day.

A colleague of mine was reading the words of institution in church one Sunday. He came to the words, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; "for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” And a rather precocious four-year old piped up, “EWWW, YUK!” And that 4yr. old heard the words but only understood the outward and visible acts. She had not yet come to that place where the inward and spiritual act allowed her to know that the bread and wine were real, but so were the flesh and blood.

When we think about it, it is a strange way of signing that God is within us. It is a strange way of describing what happens when Christ is at the center of our lives. There is no more primal action than eating and drinking, except for those who know God at that experiential level. There is no way to really explain what it means to be Christ’s own better than knowing that we consume his body and blood.

Theologians have waxed quite eloquent, giving us all kinds of explanations of how this happens. The Roman Catholics call it transubstantiation, Presbyterians call it memoriam, Orthodox Christians call it mysterium. Lutherans are often said to believe in consubstantiation. But all in all, we know that it is the Real Presence of God that dwells among us and in us.

It is this indwelling of God that is both scary and wonderful. Most of the time, I would guess that I don’t get one of those remarkable, God-walks-in-the-room experiences when I receive the Holy Eucharist. The bread and wine just remind me of those moments when God DID walk in the room, DID take my breath away. It reminds me of how completely forgiven I am of all my sinfulness even though I am not deserving of it. It puts me in touch with God’s wanting me to know how much I am loved, how much I am cared for and how much God wants me to share that love with others. That is why we celebrate this Holy Meal. It is why we are here each Sunday.

Last Sunday I attended an Episcopal Church in Lewes, DE. The church was full of all ages. One of J’s classmates was preaching at the baptism of two little children. He wanted to tell these children, he said, that God loved them. “It’s as simple as that.” God loves them just the way they are.

And that is what I want to say to you. God loves you just the way you are. You can’t earn his love, but you can be transformed by that love. It is that transformation that is what the book of Proverbs is about. It is what the letter of Ephesians is trying to get across.

Because we have been loved with a love that is eternal, because we have been loved with a love that goes beyond death, we have the ability to be changed by that love. I call it loved-into-being. Many of us know how we have been changed by the love of another—How we came to be a better person because someone loved us. Some of us know what it means to be able to share that love with others and watch them become better, more whole or healthy people simply because someone cared enough about them.

I have friends who through the love of others in AA or NA have been able to be freed from alcoholism or addiction. I have watched kids who had poor home lives grow into solid and selfless citizens because a teacher or a coach or a scout leader cared about them. So how much more is it when we know that it is God who is the one who is calling us to be more than we once were? Who is loving us into being more than we were? It is that kind of transformation that I am talking about.

The incarnation of God, that in-fleshed love of Jesus Christ, works a kind of love that allows us to step out of old selves and into a new world each day. In the Proverbs reading Wisdom, the feminine manifestation of God, invites the disciple of God into new learning, invites even the simple, even the untrained to come and learn of God’s love. “Come eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed” she says. This eating and drinking strengthens us to center our lives more in Christ’s love. It nourishes us in faith and hope. It is this willingness to learn more of our faith that allows us new ways of expressing that overwhelming gift that Jesus gave in his death on the Cross.

It is through the food—the nourishment of our faith through the sign of Jesus’ body and blood that gives us the strength to demand more of ourselves in his Name. It is with the taste of bread and grape that we know our own fleshiness and at the same time we know God’s presence within us. We know it individually and we know it in our community of faith. That in-fleshed presence we know in the bread and the wine is also known by every other person in this church. It was known by the people in Lewes¸DE. It is known in all the congregations up and down in this synod. It is known by the Roman Catholics, and the Methodists, the Mennonites and the Congregationalists. It is what makes us one.

And so I invite you, when you stand or kneel to receive the nourishment of Christ himself at the altar this morning, to think first of how God has loved you in the past. Then I would invite you to think how you can learn more of God and how you can love others in the future. It IS that simple. AMEN