Thursday, May 26, 2011

New birds and the bees for straight people in the church?

I filled out a survey this week for someone who's doing graduate school research on women clergy and what we wear...  the questions embraced not just what we wear, but how our choices of dress impacts our ideas of beauty and sexuality and gender.  Lots of questions about how people perceive you, and if you can feel sexy while wearing an Almy "Clericool" collar. 
Add that to some recent appointments for couples (gay and straight) for premarital counseling, requests to be  more active in the political quest for marriage equality and it has reminded me that the church is avoiding having "the birds and the bees" conversation about heterosexuality by focusing so much on homosexuality in our conventions and elections. 

What is our theology of heterosexuality?  Officially in the Episcopal Church, it's wait until you get married... but in nine years of ordained ministry, I have done the premarital counseling for only one couple who was not already living together. Couples are often shy about admitting they're living together, and then surprised that I don't find it shocking or a bad thing.   Sexuality is such an important part of a marriage, how could you not try that out and find out if you were compatible before you made a final commitment? 

Some might say that's just the church accomodating a cultural shift--but I don't think it's that simple.  There have been real--and good!--changes in our understanding of sexuality in the last 75 years, and if the church can change to accomodate new understandings of other topics (race, homosexuality, creation, etc.) why haven't we developed our theology of heterosexuality? 

We're willing to say that we've moved on from believing that sex is just for procreation... but if so, then what is it for?  Mutual love? Pleasure? Joy?  Is it a sacramental act, or a biological need?  Can mutual love, pleasure, and joy only be found in marriage?  Or might loving sexual relationships before marriage be part of the goodness of creation?  I certainly wouldn't say that sex anytime anyplace with anyone is a good thing--but I think there's a lot more sex in the world that is a sign of God's love for us than officially sanctioned and blessed post-marital sex! 

Thomas Keating, the great Roman Catholic contemplative, said something like this at a retreat I attended a few years ago, "Today, the first marriage is like the novitiate.  It is the time when you figure out what kind of life you are called to, and with what community you are called to live.  The second marriage is like your final vows--the second marriage brings people together who know who they are and to what they are called."  Shocking from an RC monk...  but how liberating! 

All in all, it's probably a lot more comfortable for a group of mostly straight people in our parishes to talk about those nice gay people and how their sexual relationships should be worthy of blessing than to open the can of worms of our own issues.  I guess this is the "slippery slope" that those who are against same-sex marriage are worried about.  But there's a part of me that feels like heterosexual folks need to slip down that slope and confront our own realities. 

What do you think? If clergy are supposed to be an example of the Christian life, would a clergyperson who was having sex outside of marriage be an example of a healthy Christian life?  Personally, I certainly hope so!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Looking for Glenn Beck!

Only in NYC can a priest spend her morning working out the answer to the question, "Under what circumstances can Glen Beck come volunteer at our homeless feeding program?"
Mr. Beck's assistant did indeed call Epiphany out of the blue with a request to have him and several friends from his 9/12 "tea-party-esque" group (her words, not mine) come volunteer a week from today.  "He just wants to roll up his sleeves and help people" said his assistant, Tiffany, repeatedly.  "Have you heard of Glenn Beck?" she asked. "Of course," I answered. "Well, many people in New York, you know, are liberal and haven't heard of him."  "Of course we know who Glenn Beck is.  We watch Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart."  She laughed bitterly.  "That's a good one."

"Why us?" I asked incredulously. Tiffany explained that she liked the way we treated our guests with "dignity", seating them for meals rather than treating them like people at a "regular soup kitchen."  Agreed.  We do treat our guests with dignity.  Which is why it was hard to picture how Glenn Beck could join us without their dignity being violated and turned into a nameless backdrop. 

But there's no such thing as bad publicity, right? And we need volunteers, and to raise awareness of homlessness and hunger, and frankly, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olberman have never shown any interest in volunteering at our program, so I tried to keep an open mind.  This was not aimed at the Fox News audience, but for the future, unspecified "charitable" work that Glenn Beck will be doing after he leaves that network.  I told Tiffany that many of our guests did not like to have their pictures taken. "Oh, Glenn will get them to talk to him. He's just so likeable!"

It wasn't hard to imagine the reception Glen Beck would get from most of our weekly volunteers, though, whose politics lean pretty far to the left.  If he did come, it would be a real test of the hospitality of Christians.  We welcome everyone to eat on Wednesdays--you can be homless, you can be poor, you can be mentally ill--and there are probably even a few people who are taking advantage of a free dinner.  (No doubt Glen Beck would suss them out instantly.)  And if we welcome all, then we need that to mean all--even people with whom we disagree. 

A flurry of phone calls to the rector and director of the homeless feeding program and we had a plan.  Mr. Beck could come with his volunteers, but because we have a slew of volunteers at the moment because it's the end of the semester and local students are fulfilling their community service requirements, it needed to be in late June or July, not in May.  And to protect our guests' privacy, no video cameras in the room where people were being fed. He could bring a still camera to take pictures of himself and the other volunteers.  We could accomodate him that much from our general policy regarding cameras in the dining room, which is just that they're forbidden. After dinner, he could do interviews on film with any of the volunteers or others who wanted to be filmed.  But we didn't want his presence to inhibit anyone from eating--since that's our primary mission. 

I called Tiffany, pretty sure that this wasn't going to work for her--but if his real aim was to help, as she claimed, it was a good offer.  This way he would be helpful. Showing up next Wednesday with cameras would not be helpful. 

I never even got to the "no camera" part--by the time I said it needed to be later in June, her answer was "That's not going to work. We need this for the June 7th launch."  "What happens on June 7th?" A pause.  "Oh.  Well, you'll hear all about it because it's going to be really big.  It's the launch of Glenn's new charitable and political initiative.  And now you're really going to miss out.  It's very disappointing."  And with that, she was gone.  So much for unspecified future projects.

So Mr. Beck, in case you ever read this, know that you are welcome to volunteer at our homeless feeding program--just like everyone else. We'd love to have you.  We'd love to have you come to our fundraising auction on June 10 and help us raise money to feed the 120 souls who come through our doors every Wednesday.  We'd even love you to come here with a camera and do a story on homelessness and hunger.  But our feeding program isn't just a backdrop to make you look good. If you really want to "roll up your sleeves" and make a difference, come on by, and you will be welcome. And over time, that might make you look good. 

"Believing with our lives" A Sermon for Easter 2A, May 1, 2011

Do you believe?
Do you believe President Obama was born in the US? 
Do you believe in climate change? 
Do you believe “fracking” is good or bad environmental stewardship? 
Do you believe in trickle-down economics?
Do you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead?  

How do we come to belief in anything? I would say anything that we cannot see with our own eyes, but that’s not such a strong argument these days; perhaps it’s easier to believe in the atom, which we cannot see but which is morally and politically neutral, than in something that contradicts other beliefs that are more central to us (and perhaps more hidden). So how do we come to believe in things—what we can see, and what we must take on “faith” or on the testimony and witness of others?  

John’s gospel is quite concerned with being perceived as “true”. John at the end of the Gospel stresses again and again that this his testimony is true because he has seen it… “You can trust me” he says again and again. And he has Jesus declare himself to be “The way, the truth, and the life” and later has Pilate ask, despairingly, of Jesus, “What is truth?”  

The disciples and Thomas today are confronted with truth in every sense of the word: Jesus is in front of them. The disciples are not heroes in the believing-without-seeing category; part of the reason they’re hidden in the upper room is no doubt that they did not believe Mary Magdalene when she told them that she had seen Jesus outside the tomb that morning. But finally, 10 of them see Jesus on Easter evening… and Thomas does not, and he does not choose to be swayed into belief by their testimony.  

If ten of the people closest to you, with whom you had lived and worked for 3 years, told you they had seen something—even something impossible, and I don’t know how much more impossible you can get than being raised from the dead, but something—a UFO, let’s say—would you believe them if you didn’t see the evidence yourself? 

The only way we can believe in the resurrection is hearsay—the testimony of others—and yet most of us here this morning do believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. We are like those to whom Peter writes in the epistle this morning: “Although you have not seen him, you love him.” Thomas doesn’t even believe his friends when they tell him they have seen Jesus… why does he not believe them? Why else would the 10 other disciples tell Thomas that they had seen Jesus than that it was true? Were they playing a joke? Trying to start a concoct a conspiracy theory to make themselves feel better? Having some sort of mass delusion?  

Matthew, whose gospel we heard on Palm Sunday and Easter, is so concerned that people believe the truth of the resurrection that he includes the background behind the Chief priests and Pharisees establishing a conspiracy theory to explain away the resurrection—they post a guard at the tomb for otherwise, “his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people he has been raised from t he dead, and the last deception would be worse than the first.” And then, when those guards have been shocked by the angel and the resurrection, according to Matthew they go back to the priests, who pay them off to say that the disciples came and stole him away in the middle of the night.

And you thought conspiracy theories were a modern invention.  

Belief isn’t enough. The disciples today become apostles, become those who are sent into the world to testify to what they believe through words and actions. Do you live according to your beliefs? Or do you believe according to your life? In other words, when we believe according to your life, we take on beliefs that match the rest of our lives—our jobs, our families, our cultures, our convenience. When we live according to our beliefs we change our lives to reflect our belief when they conflict with what is convenient, what is considered proper, what is expected of us by our friends, families, bosses, etc. We do both, of course—some beliefs we hold because they validate other parts of our lives, and some ideals we believe in even though they don’t mesh with our lives, but there’s always a gap between our ideals and the reality. We are sinful human beings, after all. Like Paul, who says in Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Sometimes we don’t know how—or don’t choose to make the sacrifices—to follow through with living our belief actively.  

Thomas is living according to what he believes when he denies the reality of what his friends have told him… but when what he believes changes, when he is confronted by the risen Christ, his very life changes. Thomas lives according to his beliefs, not the other way around. He, of all the disciples, hears Jesus’ sending message because he gets all the way to India… further than any of the others, where the church he founded in the first century continues today. (and I’m skeptical about most early church myths, but the Mar Thoma church in India really does extend back to the first century, so it’s not unlikely that Thomas got there.)

Now if only we lived according to our beliefs. We did an exercise at a conference I went to last year that was very illuminating in discerning where our beliefs and our lives are at odds—and by illuminating them, giving us the tools to begin to bring them in line. 

Column one: What sort of things, if they were to happen more or less frequently, would contribute to my growth as a person of faith?

Column two: I am committed to the value or the importance of what (or, what do I believe?)?

Column three: What am I doing or not doing that is keeping my aspirations from being realized?

Column four: Given number three, I may also be committed to the value of…. (I may also believe…)

Column five: If I did not do my number three behaviors, what (horrible) things might happen? 

A friend told me recently that when she was learning to work with young children, she was taught to always put instructions in a positive tense to get the kids to listen. So instead of saying “Don’t run”, which would inevitably cause the kids to do exactly what you were saying not to do, she would say, “Walk”. Angels in scripture always say “Do not be afraid.” Which probably didn’t comfort anyone too much who heard it. Jesus doesn’t say “Do not be afraid” even though he’s just walked through a wall on the day he was resurrected from the dead, and if the disciples were hiding in terror before he arrived, I’m sure they were only more terrified when Jesus appeared. But he doesn’t tell them not to be afraid, he puts it in the positive way: “Peace be with you.”  

Peace be with you. Don’t negate or deny your fear. But have peace. The fifth column need not rule our lives—Jesus has breathed the holy spirit upon us all and sent us out to do his work—and if we really do believe that, then our fears do not have the last word.  

Our collect this morning asks, “Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith.” The collect is reminiscent of the General Thanksgiving, which those of you who remember Morning Prayer used to say each week: “And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days…” Not only with our lips, but in our lives.   Let's stand and pray the General Thanksgiving--it's Easter, and a time to give thanks.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving‑kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

"Earthquake!" An Easter Vigil Sermon for 2011

“And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.”

The fact that there is an earthquake at Matthew’s account of the resurrection leapt out at me this year—considering earthquakes has been something of Lenten discipline for all of us, since the Japan quake happened on the first Friday in Lent. But when we have just seen 29,000 people lose their lives to that earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and where recovery continues in Haiti from the earthquake that claimed 300,000 lives 18 months ago, it would be incredibly insensitive to describe earthquakes as benign or as a sign of God’s presence and action in the world. But we read tonight of God’s creation of the earth, and affirmed our belief that the creation is good… and if we needed more reason to think so, yesterday was Earth Day in addition to Good Friday. 

So the earth shakes in the Gospel tonight—in more ways than one, and maybe it can offer us some hope, along with some wisdom, especially since there are actually two earthquakes in Matthew’s Gospel. The first one is when Jesus dies on the cross: “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” At Jesus’ death, the very earth mourns and cries with its shaking. But the earthquake of tragedy and grief and pain is also explicitly linked to new life: the earth quaked, and the dead were raised.  

The other earthquake here, at the tomb, is upon the arrival of the angel. It is, in Greek, a “seismos megos”; a “mega-earthquake”. It also brings forth new life: the tomb is shown to be empty, and the angel announces the resurrection. And that earthquake and its causes cause another shaking at the tomb that is even more interesting to me: the guards also have a “seismon”: “For fear of [the angel] the guards shook and became like dead men.” What the guards have witnessed—an earthquake, an angel, an empty tomb—is so shocking that they collapse.  

There are 500,000 earthquakes per year. Most of them, we cannot feel; the ground just shifts beneath our feet and we continue to walk on, oblivious. But they’re a witness to the living nature of our planet in its continuing process of creation. Nothing is static on Earth; plates are shifting, continents are drifting, mountains are growing and shrinking. Creatures are living and dying, and that is part of the goodness of the creation. 

When have you felt the ground shift beneath your feet, literally or figuratively? The figurative earthquakes are just as numerous as the physical ones—things change and move all around us, but as long as we don’t feel them ourselves, we’re not aware of them. When we are at the epicenter, it can be overwhelming; when we are further away we feel only a gentle shake—or nothing at all. But do not give in to the illusion that just because you don’t feel it, change isn’t happening: remember, 500,000 earthquakes per year, of which about 100,000 big enough to be felt. But those other 400,000 are still going on, still shifting, still bringing the earth along in its journey of creation.    

Shifting ground happens at all levels of our lives—in our faith, in our relationships, in our vocations, and in the world. Who would have thought a year ago that a revolution would be taking place in Libya—or that mostly peaceful protests would bring down the governments of Tunisia and Egypt? Closer to home, what are the earthquakes awaiting us with Social Security and Medicare? What resonance will be felt for years from budget cuts to education programs and school? Perhaps you’ve found renewal in the past year; or perhaps you’ve suffered. Changes are big and small, positive and negative, and contribute to our own growth and maturation—if we do not respond with utter fear and become like those who are dead. 

But sometimes there is a mega-earthquake; a seismon megon, and it absolutely changes the way we see the world. The resurrection is a seismon megon. That Jesus died and rose from the dead, and appeared to Mary and the other Mary and then the disciples, fundamentally altered how at first a few people, and then more and more saw the world and hoped for something different after we ourselves die, until there are 2.1 billion Christians around the world today celebrating this empty tomb.  

Bishop Sisk began his sermon on Tuesday at the Mass of Collegiality by calling attention to a news story the earthquake and tsunami tablets that have dotted the coast of Japan for the last 600 years. In the village of Aneyoshi, there is a stone hundreds of years old with the following inscription on it: “High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants…. Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.” The village heeded the wisdom of their ancestors, and so when the tsunami came, their homes were above the flood. Bishop Sisk pointed out that the tablet is not overly alarmist—it’s not instructing people to panic or to give up their way of life. Just to respect the reality that they live in a place of earthquakes and tsunamis, and that the wisdom and experience of those who have suffered them before can be a help to us today.  

We are in effect reminding ourselves of the Christian equivalent of such a stone tablet today on behalf of the children we’ve just baptized. We have said to Tyler, Lila, Vivian, and Cora that God created everything—and it was good. We have said that people who were slaves had to go through the wilderness before they reached the promised land—but they made it. We have said that wisdom seeks out all people, not just the intelligent. We have said that sin is real, but so is forgiveness; that Jesus saves; and we have pledged as the Christian community to help form them as witnesses to the Good News of Jesus Christ who lived, who died, and who was raised and promises us eternal life in the resurrection. When the earth shifts beneath their feet, they will not become as “those who are dead”; they will be grounded. They will know that forgiveness and love are strong than sin; that suffering is horrible, but not eternal; and that life follows death. And there will be evenings, and mornings, and God will see them and smile, and say that they are very good.