Monday, July 27, 2015

A Prayer for Uncles & Aunts

Uncle Bud is second from the left.  These are the siblings
of my mother's generation:  l to r:  Patricia (my mom),
Harold (Bud), Donald (DJ), Barbara, & James (JJ).
Written in honor of my Uncle, Harold "Bud" Johnson, who died on July 23, 2015 at the age of seventy.  Uncle Bud was like glue--he brought people together and helped hold them here.  The family level of extroversion has dropped dramatically with his passing to the next life.  May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Blessed are you, O Lord our God,
for the gift of the brothers and sisters
 of our mothers and fathers.
We call them uncles and aunts, funny words.
You use them to bless us, to show us our own glory, your gift to us
Our parents give us wings and teach us to fly.
Our uncles and aunts teach us to do tricks in our flight, and the many ways of landing we will need.
Most of these are safe.
Their job is delight and wisdom that sometimes we will listen to
because they are not our parents.
It is a kind of learning to grow up sideways.
In the mist of the roots of our language
it is no surprise to us at all
that the word "uncle" was once a verb
that the word "aunt" comes from the same source as the word "adventure."

The sadness is that as we grow we inevitably lose them
and their joy at seeing us--and we them--becomes memory.
As you bless them in the life beyond this life
bless us also to keep their memory in our wings.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Torn Down Walls and Open Doors: the Struggle to be the Church

Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath,NY, on July 19,2015. Ephesians 2:11-22

I want to begin by reading from a letter that has “gone viral” on the internet. Some of you may have seen it. It is entitled “A Letter on Why We are Breaking Up or Why I am Leaving the Church I grew Up In."

Dear Church,

If I told you: “It’s not you, it’s me,” I would be lying to the both of us.

It is you.

I know this is hard for the both of us, but it is true. You see, I’ve moved on. I’ve found a church that respects not only me but everyone around me, and it is really nice. I now realize what I have been missing out on all my life.

See, I know you are the church that my mom wants me to be with, the one she wants me to raise my children with, to grow old and die with, but my mom is part of a generation that is getting smaller and smaller every single day. Even though us breaking up will hurt her, I know she will understand.

Frankly, you aren’t a nice church to be a part of. You discriminate. You won’t let me participate in higher church positions because I am a “woman” and not worthy. You made me work the nursery during the summers because I was a girl, while my cousin got to teach the youth groups because he was a boy. Not cool, church.

Also, you are way behind the times. This new church I met (It’s the Episcopal Church, just to inform you) loves all of my friends equally. When I told my priest that my best friend was gay, he was totally cool with it. In fact, as of last week, my best friend can get married in my new church – full on married, with all the sacraments. You, on the other hand, you just weren’t very accepting. You told me he was going to hell. Not cool, church. Not cool.

Also, I am a bit worried as to where you are headed. You rarely help the poor, church, you pour all your money into making bigger buildings, larger parking lots, and more room for a dwindling congregation. Right now, just outside your walls, churches are being burned because of race, kids are going hungry, and the wealth-divide grows more and more with every passing day.

This gospel you taught me, the one that is focused so much on money – money as a reward for faith, having no money as a response to being a sinner, debt being a sign of a polluted soul – isn't the real good news. No, you judge too many people for things they cannot control, and you raised me to do the same. I can’t live that way anymore. I can’t live with you anymore.

Don’t call me selfish for abandoning you, and don’t tell me that my soul is in danger when it isn’t. I have never felt more sure about anything since I decided to move. I see an inclusive church, one I can understand and one that, in turn, understands humanity. I see a place where I can actually make a difference for Christ, regardless of gender, race, or sexuality. I can make a difference because I am human.

You’re founded on something I just can’t support – a closed door.

So I’ve decided to move on. I’ve found a new church. I’m breaking up with you.


This young woman understands perfectly the heart of the Gospel that St. Paul is proclaiming to the Church in Ephesus in this morning’s reading. Jesus breaks down the wall, and it stays down. Jesus opens the door, and it stays open. Jesus is not a wedge issue. Following him does not divide us from others. Jesus, Paul says, is “our peace.”

Now in Christ Jesus, you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

The Christian Church was scandalous in its early days in the same way its Lord had been scandalous, the one who ate with tax collectors and sinners, touched and healed the unclean, and treated women and foreigners, even religious heretics, as equals.

No matter what your status in the world, the early Christians included you in their gatherings on an equal footing. Paul said this most famously in his letter to the Galatians.

In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have been clothed by Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-27).

Observers of Christians in these early days called their gatherings “unnatural,” “subversive,” and in the Book of Acts St. Luke tells us they were known as “these people who are turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

All of these epitaphs because Christians refused in their gatherings to observe social boundaries. Unfortunately, it did not last long. We can actually see it begin to erode in the later New Testament books, when women and slaves begin to be reminded of their “proper place.” And in every age since, anyone labelled “sinner” has frequently found themselves outside the door, with no access to the table at which Jesus has always and everywhere wished to eat with them (or us, that is).

We love our walls, the doors that close and protect our fortresses (the buildings we call church). For over fifty years in the Episcopal Church we have struggled to tear the walls down and open the doors wide. The struggle has cost us because many of our members could not tolerate a greater and greater openness.

But breaking down walls and opening doors is clearly our high calling from the Lord who is our peace. And maybe, just maybe, if we get over our timidity about telling the world who we are and whose we are, people like the young woman who wrote that letter will hear the good news in a different, attractive, transformative way.

It is two of the promises we make in our Baptismal Covenant: We will seek and serve all people, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and proclaiming to all in word and deed the good news of God in Christ.

And that good news is as simple as this: all walls have been torn down and all doors have been opened.


Thursday, July 02, 2015

A Full and Equal Claim

Thirty-nine years ago, in 1976 (when I was still in high school), the Episcopal Church said through our General Convention

Resolved, that it is the sense of this General Convention that homosexual persons are children of God and have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church.

For 1976 this was a fairly bold statement, although Episcopal clergy and lay people all over the country had been working toward it for the previous ten to fifteen years. Among them was Dr. Louie Crew, founder of Integrity.

The 1976 resolution was a promissory note to the Church's "homosexual" members. Thirty-nine years later, with the passage yesterday of canons and liturgies that provide for equal marriage, the note has been substantially paid (which should not be taken as the end of the struggle, for there is much work to do after legislation has passed as our African-American and female members have taught us).

Nevertheless, I rejoice today, and John and I rejoice. Many worked hard over these past thirty-nine years. John and I were among them, for the past 30 years. Today we are grateful and humbled.

The only grey side of today for me is a statement by Bishop Dorsey McConnell of Pittsburgh, who said during the debate in the House of Bishops, “We have not been talking about this for 40 years; we have been having a pitched battle."

That statement is political rhetoric; it is not the truth. How has this change occurred? Yes, it has occurred through the democratic processes of the Episcopal Church and some of the exchanges in that process were certainly heated, and some saw them as a battle. But the "political" process would have been impossible without real, sacrificial witness on the part of countless LGBT Episcopalians and our allies during these thirty-nine years. And yes, that included dialogue with those who disagreed. I participated in more of them than I can remember, although I do remember one in which Bishop McConnell (then a humble parish priest) not only participated in but hosted.

These thirty-nine years have been a testimony to some basic biblical principles:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:3-5)

Then Jesus said to them, "The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath."

[Jesus said,] Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, adn will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."

[Peter said,] "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."..."If then God gave them the same gift [of the Holy Spirit] that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God" (Acts 10:34-35 & 11:17)

[Paul wrote,] "For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of youas were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is not longer slave and free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.: (Galatians 3:26-28)

You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus...the only thing that counts is faith working through love." (Galatians 5:4-6)

"The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is no law against these things. (Galatians 5:22-23).

As many times as I have had the Bible thrown in my face, words such as these have helped me keep my eyes on the prize. And these are not simply proof texts for me, but I have had the exquisite pleasure of living these realities in community with the parishes I have served and the people with whom I have worked and prayed across the country, and, indeed, around the world.

One could say that no the promissory note has not been paid, but it has come due, and the payment due is the unfettered proclamation of the Good News that the God we follow, who we know in Jesus Christ, and who has given each of us a share in the Holy Spirit, is the God of mercy, grace, and love for absolutely everybody. Everyone has a full and equal claim on the love of God.

Friday, June 26, 2015

"The Constitution grants them that right."

For the record:

On this day, June 26, 2015, Marriage Equality was granted to same-sex persons by the Supreme Court of the United States.  Same-sex couples may marry now in all 50 states.  Let us end the use of adjectives to describe a marriage.  A marriage is a marriage is a marriage.

John and I welcome this day, a day we, like so many others, thought we would not see in our lifetime. God is good and has granted this grace to us all. We do think this day of those who have gone before, who indeed did not see this day in their lifetime, but we know now rejoice with us on the farther shore.

Justice Kennedy:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

It is so ordered.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"His Name is John" (Are we about "order" or "amazement"?)

On the 8th day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, "No; he is to be called John." They said to her, "None of your relatives has this name." Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, "His name is John." And all of them were amazed.
Yesterday was the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, and the actions of his parents got me thinking about an essay recently written by the Bishops of Pittsburgh and Georgia, which included
these words.

Anglicans say that we seek to do “all things decently and in order.” We want to do things decently, charitably seeking to understand those with whom we disagree and to answer them in the open with persuasive reasons instead of with haughty neglect or raw power. We want to do things in order, as careful stewards of the faith and order we did not invent but rather have received as a precious gift. (You can find their entire essay here).
The first sentence begs the question what Anglicans said this when, to whom, and about what. The quote is from St. Paul: 1 Corinthians 14:40. It is interesting to note that Paul uses this term "order" in 1 Corinthians to talk about his "commands" about marriage, he is careful to divide into one thing he speaks from the Lord (that women should not separate from their husband she, nor husbands divorce their wives), and many things he explicitly says is from himself and not the Lord (1 Cor 7:10ff).

While I agree wholeheartedly that "the faith and order" we have received is a precious gift, I vehemently disagree with the implication that it is unchanging. It is, in fact, constantly changing in the partnership of God and God's people we call the church. We have even gone so far as to change what Paul claimed was "from the Lord" regarding divorce.

Back to John and his parents, their action in naming their child "John" was against the order of the day, so much so that people were "amazed." This incident is just the beginning of the major theme of Luke's writings of a world turned upside down (Acts 17:6). Luke uses the word "amazed" 24 times in the NRSV translation of his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. It is this amazement that catches people up in the style of life Jesus is teaching and the effect of the Gospel on the world when it is done.

I firmly believe that one of the reasons why the church is flailing (or failing) in its mission (particularly its evangelism) is that we are perceived as selling "good order" (perceived as a clarity about what cannot be done and by whom) rather than "amazement." The church rarely does "amazing" things, which always involves the risk of its very life, and its total dependence on the truth of the resurrection (which is the most order-busting act there is).

Monday, June 22, 2015

General Convention 2015: Message to my GC Friends

Greetings to all my friends at General Convention in Salt Lake City.  For the first time since 1997 I will not be there due to recovery time from illness.  I will miss it; I will mostly miss you, especially those of you who I have had the tendency only to see every three years.

It has been very hard to step back, but also a good exercise in humility.  I am no more crucial to decision-making concerning the future of the church than any one else, and there are so, so many of you who will do a good work over the next ten or so days, I have no doubt.  I will be home saying my prayers, tending my garden (literally), and continuing to seek peace.

Rather than focus on any piece of legislation--and there are several, of course, that are near and dear to my heart, I am most concerned about this:  that anxiety about the future of the church will overcome our promise to follow Jesus in the way, the truth, and the life.  Will we be a church paralyzed by statistics and myriad threats to the institution, or will we keep on keeping on walking in the way, doing the truth, and living the life?  Jesus told us there would be days like these, when we would be challenged mightily to stop risking our life, but in doing so find it has slipped through our fingers.  This is not just a challenge for individuals--to lose life in  order to find it--but for us as a body, the church.

We need a leader in a presiding bishop who will not only be a non-anxious presence, but an inspiring one, able to help us replace anxiety with a bold Spirit, the willingness to risk it all (our institutional life) for the sake of finding it all (the Gospel life).

Let resurrection prevail over these next few days.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Working on a Belated Green Thumb

It's been a rainy spring so far, which means everything is lush (including the weeds!).  It also means  friends and neighbors dealing with downed trees and flash flooding.  Nothing like that at 67 E. Main Street, although three houses down a tree split in half.  My parents as well have been spared any flooding, and they have a long history of it.

Yesterday was dry so I spent a good deal of the day weeding.  We have a small yard, but the house is surrounded by beds on two and a half sides and it went last summer without much tending.  We are about to have a riot, however, of various kinds of lilies which the previous owner planted.  Three hydrangea plants seem to be growing well.  I'm proud of myself for not having  killed any of it!

I do love my hands in the dirt, a feeling I come by honestly with farmers galore in the family tree.  I did not inherit my grandmother Beulah's and great-grandmother Pearl's green thumb, although that may be simply because I have never been able to give it the time that I can now.

I took it upon myself to revive an old family tradition in one of cemetery plots.  The plot is at Highland Cemetery in Avoca, and it's the Henderson family plot.  My grandfather Hopkins' mother was a Henderson, so there are Hopkins buried there, including my brother Dale.  The main stone in the plot is a five foot or so pillar, surrounded by a place to plant.  In my memory my grandmother always tended to this planting each year, with grandchildren helping.  She died in 2004 and others in the family kept it up for a couple years, but when I found it this year it was filled with well-established grass (and a substantial ants' nest).  Here are before and after pictures.

I used red geraniums and vinca.  It was a pleasure to do it--the kind of simple pleasure I need to restore my life.  I've been reading Parker Palmer on working my inner life and it is bearing some fruit in my outer life, which is how, I think, it is supposed to happen.  I think I have spent way too much time trying to make it work the other way around.