Friday, November 09, 2018

Baptism & the Communion of Saints: Nothing Can Separate Us

Sermon preached on All Saints' Sunday, November 4, 2018 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY.  We baptized five children.

Listen to the sermon here.

           I was baptized when I was just shy of my fifth birthday, in 1966, in the little Methodist Church that used to be in Wallace, up the road from Avoca.  Of course, I don’t remember it, and no one ever talked about while I was growing up, and my family didn’t go to church.

           Then something happened to me when I was eleven years old.  My grandmother died, someone I absolutely adored.  She died young at the age of 49 at the end of a terrible two years of battling cancer.

           I was a confused and angry young man.  I was told that she was now in heaven with God, which was a better place for her to be.  But I had no frame of reference to process those statements, and they only made me more confused and more angry.  Whoever God was, he seemed completely selfish, and how could it be possible that there was any better place for my grandmother except by my side.

           And she was no longer by my side.  She was gone.

           For many years I carried this hurt and anger in me.  When I was sixteen, my great Aunt Ann asked me to come to church with her—here to St. Thomas’.

           I did not have an immediate revelation that made everything all better again.  But over time I began to discover a different possibility in relation to that great loss in my life.

           That discovery was the possibility that the living and the dead are still in relationship with one another.  That death is not the last word on life.  That even though in this life I might always mourn the death of my grandmother—and I still do—I can also celebrate the mystery that we are still together.

           That mystery is what we mean by “the communion of saints.”

           We have to call it a mystery because it is not intellectually provable.  But we are not dismissive or afraid of mystery.  In the realm of mystery lies the faith and hope and love through which we see the world and try to live in it.  In the realm of mystery lies our capacity to choose not to live in fear or resentment or anger, all of which are agents of the power of death.

           We choose life, and it is this choice, this life, a life driven by faith, hope and love, into which we are baptizing these children this morning.

           We say some radical things this morning in this realm of mystery and life.  We say that the bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble, that these children are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.

           We do this not knowing what life is going to be like for these children.  Of course we hope and pray for the best, but we know they will know tragedy.  We know they will know trial.  We know they will fall short of everything God wants them to be.

           We know these things.  But we believe, as Paul says in Romans, that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  There is no asterisk at the end of the sentence that they are Christ’s own for ever.  There is no asterisk that leads us to some fine print that says, “unless they screw up.”

           You see, the saints are not people who always do what is right.  The saints are the people whom God loves, because God chooses to love them, in spite of anything.

           The hard part is that we are called to love just like God does.  We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, to expect to find God in them, and to always treat them with dignity because the God of love is also the God of peace and justice.

           The good news we proclaim today in our celebration of the communion of saints and in these baptisms is that faith is stronger than fear, hope is stronger than despair, and love is stronger than death.

            And life always has the last word.

Monday, October 15, 2018

I (Still) Remember Matthew

A button worn at the 2000 General Convention of The Episcopal Church

 News Report, Washington, D.C., October 12, 2018:  Matthew Shephard to be interred at the National Cathedral 20 years after his brutal murder

“God hates fags!  God hates fags!  Matthew is in Hell!” 
              It was a cold October morning in Wyoming with flakes of snow in the air when I heard these words.  It was the day of Matthew Shepard’s funeral, and I was there representing Integrity, the LGBT caucus in The Episcopal Church.  As newly elected president of the organization, it was my first official act.
            The chants came from members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.  They were notorious for showing up all over the country with dreadful signs and loud voices declaring that “God hates fags!”  More than that, they were clear that the United States was headed for a day of reckoning for the presence of homosexuals in the land.  They protested at the funerals of people who died of AIDS, they protested at gatherings of churches or even individual churches they felt supported gay folk, they even protested at military funerals, proclaiming that God hated America.  It was my first direct encounter with them, however.
            Shivering in a line waiting for admittance into the church for the funeral, listening to the screams, I wondered how this world would end.  Yes, the moment felt apocalyptic.  We were on the verge of something, and it was either going to be led by what was about to happen in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church or by what was happening in the park across the street.
            Twenty years later those thoughts seem almost silly.  Of course, the proclamation of hate was not going to win out.  It couldn’t have, and it didn’t.
            Yet when I saw that Matthew was to have a resting place in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the “great church for national purposes” which is also the Cathedral of St. Peter & St. Paul of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, I was filled with relief and joy, and then those haunting screams overtook my memories, and I have felt a deep pit of fear ever since.  It is still not safe to be lgbtq in America.  Perhaps I should not globalize.  Perhaps it is just I who do not feel safe in America.
But I know that’s wrong.  The National Coalition of Anti-violence programs reported 52 lgbtq deaths in 2017, and a general rise in anti-lgbtq violence.  A man in our own city was beaten nearly to death while anti-gay slurs were hurled at him.  It got little to no attention.
            When I wrote about Matthew’s funeral a year or so ago, there was a hopeful ending.
I recalled how, while standing in that line outside the church across from the park, I saw in the distance, walking down the street, a line of people all dressed in white.  At first, I assumed they were more protestors, but as they came closer I realized they were something quite different.  A couple dozen people, dressed in white, wearing enormous angel wings, formed themselves in a line between the protestors and the church, their wings blocking the sight of the haters and somewhat muffling their ugly shouting.
            But that never happened.  There were no angels that day, I have since discovered.  They were protecting nothing but my faulty memory.  I found this truth when I researched them, trying to learn of their origin.  Their origin was in that day, but they were not there that day.  Their first appearance was at the trial of the young men who killed Matthew, an event at which I was not present.
            I needed those angels to protect me from those screams, to be a living wall of hope that could not be crossed, a symbol that indeed the sentiment inside the church that day would win out in the end.
            Today, reading about Matthew’s final resting place, I should be joyful, but the rawness of that day twenty years ago is all I feel.  The fact that my husband and I still get taunted walking down the street in our little city from time to time; the fact that we would never, ever, do so at night.  The fact that I still flinch whenever he kisses me in public.
            We’re married now.  Twenty years ago, I certainly did not think that would be possible.  But I am still not sure it cannot be taken away.  We did, after all, just seat a man on the court who is by all signs opposed to our marriage rights, and that thought is now in the majority.  “Settled law” is a meaningless term.  The Supreme Court undoes “settled law” all the time.
            Twenty years ago, Matthew’s death and his funeral seemed apocalyptic, and in sme sense they were.  A vicious act of violence made people reconsider what they had always assumed was the way things were.  And a bloodied young man tied to a barbed-wire fence, looking like Jesus hanging from his tree, was a challenge to the church, especially to Matthew’s church and mine, The Episcopal Church.
            Twenty years later it looks for all the world like we won, even in our church.  The rawness I feel today can be chalked up to a situational ptsd.  But it feels bigger than that, deeper than that.  Hate is making a resurgence; the president has crowds chanting “lock her up” about a woman (Senator Diane Feinstein) with whom they disagree and who made a decision they do not like, not someone who has committed any crime.
            A friend says, “Don’t worry so much. Don’t spend any energy on it. They’re just blowing off steam. They’ll never be the majority.”
            But I still remember Matthew. I still remember the vicious screams across the street.  I still remember that feeling of apocalypse.  I still remember being afraid.
            I am grateful Matthew is finding his resting place and the peace I know that will bring to his family.  But I have thrown of the memory-trick of the angels protecting me.  Whether I should be or shouldn’t be, I am afraid.  I still remember that day. I still remember Matthew.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

The Hard Work of Erasing Boundaries

Sermon preached on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 9, 2018, at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY:  Mark 7:24-37 (Proper 18B)

There’s a huge discomfort that arises in me when I hear Jesus call the unnamed Gentile woman a “dog.”  So let’s go through the story closely and see what we have to learn from this strange passage.

In chapter 7 up to this point, Jesus has been haggling with a group of Pharisees about what constitutes “clean” and “unclean.”  To our ears those categories don’t mean much—we tend to hear “washed” or “unwashed,” and ask, “What does that have to do with the life of faith?”  But in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, those categories had the connotation of “sinless” (clean) or “sinful” (unclean).  They were ways of understanding what the boundaries were in Jewish life.

Jesus resists these categories—these boundaries—and attempts to re-define them.  We heard him say last week, “It is not what goes into a person that makes her unclean, it is what comes out of the human heart.”

Now in this morning’s reading, the Gospel writer Mark will show us in two healing stories just what this erasure of boundaries means.

Jesus is wearied by his argument with the Pharisees and seeks to get out of town and get some rest.  He goes so far as to go into territory that is almost exclusively non-Jewish.  Tyre and Sidon were coastal towns northwest of Galilee in what we now call Lebanon, and there is evidence that there was open hostility to Jews in this region.  Jesus clearly wants to get away!

He has tried to get away before and it hasn’t worked, and it doesn’t work here either.  If he thought he was an unknown quantity in this foreign territory, he was wrong.

A woman seeks him out.  And not just any woman.  All kinds of boundaries get crossed here.  She is a woman seeking to talk to a man, someone unknown to him approaching him after barging into his residence.  The Greek word used implies she has some status.  She is a “lady,” probably well above Jesus’ peasant status.  Boundary two crossed.  She is a Gentile.  Boundary three crossed.  By any definition of Jewish law at the time, she is “unclean.”

She asks for healing for her daughter.  Jesus replies, “It is not right to take food from the children and throw it to dogs.”

Full stop.  Did he just say that?  Did he just compare that woman and her sick daughter to dogs?  For those of us who think of Jesus as perfect or as sinless, this is more than a little jarring.

The woman may have remained as a beggar at Jesus’ feet, but she rises up into her full self and resists.  “Yes, but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall to the floor.”  And Jesus changes his mind, “Go, you will find your daughter well.”

What’s going on here?  My mentor Verna Dozier used to say that if you are unsure what a passage means, you should ask yourself, “Why did the early Christian community want to pass on this story?”  It’s an important question because each Gospel writer obviously picks and chooses which story to tell and how to tell them.  For instance, Matthew also tells this story (15:21-28) but tries to add some clarity.  Jesus is not alone with the woman in Matthew’s telling. His disciples are present. He also changes Jesus’ declaration at the end, from a very neutral and almost begrudging, “For saying that you may go—the demon has left your daughter” to a wildly positive, “Woman great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

The Gospel writer Luke decides not to even touch the story.  He doesn’t include it.

So why is this story here, especially if it seems to put Jesus in a bad light?  I think it is this.  The communities for which Mark and Matthew are writing are struggling with these boundary issues. Both are probably majority Jewish still and the inclusion of Gentiles is a divisive issue.  The old habit of dividing up the world into “clean” and “unclean” is hard to get over.  It was deeply ingrained in the Jewish soul.

Mark and Matthew want to show that even Jesus struggled with this.  It is a hard business this erasing boundaries.

And so it is, even for us who think we’ve got this inclusiveness thing down pretty well.  And compared to the church of the past we have come a mighty long way.

But our instincts—well, we can find them in a very different place.  It is easy to slip into the old saying that many people assume is in the Bible but it is not:  “Charity begins at home.”  Or, “Family comes first.”

But Jesus had to learn himself and we have to continue to learn that for his followers there are no hierarchies of need.  Of course, I must love and care for my family.  But also, of course, I must care for the stranger, or even the just plain strange.  And that is why this is so hard because in the Jesus movement there is only one family, which means the next stranger I meet is as much my sister or brother as is my sister or brother.  We should not pretend that does not cut across the grain, that it is in anyway easy.  Because it does cut across the grain and it is not easy.

But it is our high calling, our exquisite purpose, the great and joyous gift we have to give to the world.  There are no outsiders.  There is no one who because of who they are or what they do forfeits their dignity, which is God-given not human-given.  And this is the best news there can be, even if at times it seems impossible.  And if you don’t think we need, and the world around us needs, this good news then you are not paying attention.

The church shows so many signs of becoming irrelevant and slowly dying.  But we need to reach deep down for some Holy Spirit, gospel strength because if we do not live the message that God has wiped out every boundary, every division marker, that disagreements do not make us enemies, and if it does we are in need of some good old-fashioned conversion to the ways of God.

So that story is there to challenge us—as Jesus himself was challenged—to drop all the boundaries and follow Jesus in learning to love our neighbors—every son or daughter of God—as ourselves.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Finding Strength in Weakness

Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 8, 2018: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.

           These words Paul received from Jesus must have had special significance for him. These are the only words of Jesus quoted by Paul that are unique to him.  The only other time he quotes Jesus is to repeat the words of the Last Supper.  So they call us to pay attention and wrestle with what Jesus means by them, and what they meant to Paul.

           First, let’s acknowledge the fact that at face value they are not particularly good news.  We’re not likely to put the phrase “power is made perfect in weakness” on the sign board outside, or worse, something like “weakness preached here.”

           Even the context of these words does not provide much softening of them.  Paul says he is afflicted by a mysterious “thorn in the flesh.” We have no idea what this “thorn” was, but tells us that he has repeatedly asked God to remove it from him.  Jesus’ answer does not sound all that pastoral.  Paul’s suffering, his weakness, will not be taken away.

           This exchange is part of a larger story which might help us understand just what is going on here.

           The Christians in Corinth seem to have always been in crisis—factions were rife in the community, some who had certain “spiritual gifts” lorded it over those who did not.  Even their celebration of the Eucharist was corrupted into something that was a witness to their own social hierarchy.

           Paul’s first letter to them tried to deal with all these issues. He talked about their oneness in Christ, their equality in Christ’s body, and the “excellent way” of love that should pull them together.

           It appears that his teaching and his pleas had little impact.  Perhaps they never had a chance to, because at some point some missionaries showed up in their community who claimed that Paul was not who he said he was.  Their evidence was that his message was not the power of the Gospel, and he did not back up his preaching with deeds of power—displays of miraculous gifts of the spirit and healings.  Paul, they said, is a weak man, who, as a weak man, could not possibly be the apostle he said he was.

           This reminds me of something that happened in my first parish, many years ago. When I began at St. George’s, it was a very small community of 40 or so people.  I had one teenager. He was a senior when I arrived, so I had not been there yet a year when he went off to college.  He had been in church most every Sunday since he was born, and was often my acolyte.

           He came home from college at Thanksgiving and asked to see me.  He was clearly troubled.  He said to me, “I spent my whole life in this church and no one ever told me about the power of God, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the gifts he has to give us.”

           “What gifts would those be?” I asked.

           “Speaking in tongues and prophesying and working miracles of healing.  Ways that God’s power can work through us.  God wants us to have victory in our lives.”

           He was hooked, and I didn’t get anywhere with him.  “The power of God is primarily love,” I said, “and the strength we need for daily living.  It is not for the purpose of showing off how powerful or important we are.”

           That was 27 years ago when things called mega-churches were just coming into being, promising prosperity and social power, and, not surprisingly, the clear divisions between godly and ungodly people.

           And over the years they have attracted many of our own people and have seemed so successful that we have spent time and energy trying to figure out how we can be like them, and return ourselves to a day when membership in our churches was highly valued, a time when people listened to us, a time when we had social power.

           The rapid demise of mainstream Protestant churches is a kind of thorn in our flesh as a church.  We don’t know what to do about it.  We try things.  They work a little, but not enough.  We don’t know the answer.

           I don’t know the answer.  All I know is what Jesus told Paul, and tells me, and tells us.

My grace is sufficient for you for power is made perfect in weakness.

           Now that is not a sexy message; it’s not about making anything “great” again; it’s not about returning us to a position of power.

           But it may be just what we need.

           As a priest over the years I have had plenty of people come to me feeling as if they were called to be a deacon or a priest in the church.  They inevitably want to impress me with their prayer life, with their leadership in the church, with their passion for the gospel.  And I have wanted to hear about those things.

           But I also want to know how they have suffered.  I want to know about their weakness and how they live with it.  I ask these things because I believe the answer to those questions to be more important than to hear about their strengths.

           Why?  So I know they have a chance to be able to relate to the rest of us, how to help us find God’s grace in the midst of both short-term and long-term adversity, how to know the power of God in our weakness.

           Will that pack the pews?  Maybe, maybe not.  As I said, it’s not a very sexy message and we are competing with churches who offer the exact opposite.

           I only know my own experience, the thorns I carry in my flesh, about which I do not want to boast.  I bring them with me every Sunday. I do not try to leave them at home.  I bring them here and find over and over again that God’s grace—God’s love for me that I have not earned or deserved—is sufficient.

           And it has been consistently true that my weaknesses, drenched in the love of God, are what have made me a good priest, if I dare say that about myself at all.

           It may not be how we want the world to work, but it is how the world—God’s world—works.  The grace of God—that Paul says elsewhere God has lavished on us—is sufficient and any power and true strength we have is made perfect in our weaknesses, because it is in those weaknesses that we experience the depth of that grace and God’s love for us.

           And that is Good News in our real life, the life we are bid to bring to this altar week by week.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Feeling the "Empty Base Syndrome"

Nephews Derick and Marcus as Teammates, 2016
Our youngest nephew Marcus, and exchange student nephew Sergio, and their ten teammates played the last baseball game of their season this afternoon.  It was a regional game that could have put them in the final four of the state tournament, but they lost 5-1.  They remain, however, the Section V Class D champs, a status not achieved by our little hometown, Avoca, in twelve years.  I hope they can let go of the memory of today’s defeat and hold on to their amazing season.

For Marcus and Sergio, as well as their two teammates Evan and Austin, this is also their last game of high school baseball.  And for my family, who take their high school sports very seriously, well, we are experiencing something like “empty base” syndrome.  We have cheered a generation through soccer, track, basketball, cheerleading, softball and baseball since their earliest youth soccer and t-ball days, something like 25 years’ worth of games.

We have seen it all.  We have shaken our heads at games when nothing went right.  We have gloried when teams came together and triumphed.  We have cringed at injuries, shared disappointments, and thrilled together when we beat a rival.  We have watched mistakes that are worthy of any bloopers show on television, and we have seen a kid reach inside for more than he or she or we thought was there.  Along the way we also have let more than a few referees and umpires know when they were not performing up to par.

I sit here this evening feeling broken-hearted on the one hand and grateful and proud on the other.  I am sure my parents and siblings do also, and, most of all, I hope our nephews do, feel both as well.

In the end, the importance of these games over the years has not so much been about the competition as it has been the life lived and learned:  What it means to pull together as a team, a community, of different abilities and personalities, ask the best of one another, and live through both trials and celebrations together.  How luck and chance are a part of life, but so is working hard anyway.  Why the love of a family and a community are so important in our lives.  How sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, but we are never worth more or less because of it.

Competition is a part of life. Life would be dull without it. But living life is ultimately not a competition.  It is about faith and hope and love, the things that draw us together not drive us apart.

I have loved being an uncle through all of this, and the last three years when I could be at almost every game has been a gift and a privilege.  I am also proud to be a son and a brother along the way, watching the faithfulness of my parents to their grandchildren, and watching my amazing sisters and brother and their spouses raise little boys and little girls to be young women and men.  I am sure you do not get told enough what a great job all of you have done.

And Marcus and Sergio, keep bringing to life that intensity I witnessed so often, the drive to do your best, and help one another thrive.  But leave room for the disappointments and mistakes.  They will always come.  Laugh at yourself once and awhile, and above all keep that goofy side you both have.  Life is a party to be celebrated more than it is a game to be won.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

April 4, 1968

              I am six-years-old, almost seven, and I am in the first grade.  It is April 4, 1968, and The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated at 6 pm in Memphis, Tennessee.  I have a stray memory that I have always associated with this day.  I am watching television and the announcement comes on that Dr. King has been killed.  My Uncle Jimmy, my mother’s youngest brother, who is eighteen, is watching us kids.  In addition to myself is my 3-year-old sister and my 8-months-old sister.  My parents are probably out bowling, which, in those days, was almost always why they were out and we had a sitter.  I hear my Uncle Jimmy say, “They got him.”

              I do not trust this memory entirely, and I have never asked my Uncle about it because I don’t want to embarrass him.  He is a good guy and I cannot now imagine him saying such a thing, but I also don’t know what emotion was attached to those three words.  Was it just a statement of fact?  Was it bewilderment?  Was it excitement?  I don’t know.

              But I do know I was living in a racist environment.  Of that I have no doubt at all.

              My husband John was raised in North Florida, in a rural area much like the one in which I was raised in Upstate New York.  This is true beyond census numbers.  Comparing notes on growing up, we are surprised at the cultural similarities of our hometowns, and attitudes about race are at the top of the list.  Northerners like to think of themselves as more enlightened than Southerners.  We did, after all, win the Civil War.  But whatever we were fighting for, it was not the equality of black and white, or if it was, it didn’t take.  Any progress made over the hundred years since is infinitesimal.

              In my hometown in Western New York, of around 2,000 people, I remember two black families.  One lived in the village, and one lived halfway up one of the hills outside of town.  The latter may have been more than one family.  Where they lived was called “the nigger camp” by those who did not live there.  This “camp” was for permanent residents.  In the Autumn migrant workers, mostly from Florida, would come to pick potatoes.  They lived in several camps on various farms in the town.  Their children came to our school for the six or so weeks they were at work, although they had a separate classroom in the basement and I have no memories of seeing them.

              When people were being polite they called the black folk among us “darkies,” or “colored fellas.”  My great-grandmother Pearl’s house was on a street that those who lived at the permanent camp walked down if they walked into the village to one of the stores.  In reviewing the events of any given day, she would note how many “darkies” had passed by.  She was still doing this the years I lived with her during and immediately after my time as an undergraduate.

              My mother frequently comments on the smell of black people.  “I don’t care what anyone says, they smell.” I have heard this dozens of times.  It is often provoked just by seeing a black person on the street.  My father often uses the words, “jungle bunny.”  More than anything else this slur bothers me as a kid.  Why?  I’m not certain. I suspect it was so obviously demeaning.

              Today, April 4, 2018, 50 years later, I want to remember these things.  My parents don’t say those things anymore, and my journey has included being the rector of a majority African-American parish.  I voted for our first African-American President and rejoiced in his victories.  But I do not dare forget my history; it is still there in me, enough times surfacing in tiny, almost instinctual impulses, that I must remain vigilant.

              Issues of race still plague America. They still plague the communities in which I know live and have lived.  They still plague the church to which I belong.  We have come so far, but the inequality is still stunning, and so-called “white” America, including myself, just cannot get it.  We want desperately to believe in a society of equal opportunity, and the desperation placates us, makes us blind, deaf, and dumb.  We cannot see our own privilege, despite the fact that we are awash in it, like some kind of eerie reverse baptism, awash in the original sin of our society, underneath the veneer of good will still festering, bubbling up more times than we care to know, and often even when we do see it, we are quick to self-absolve.

              Today I am glad I am not living in 1968, but, fifty years later, I cannot allow myself to think we live that far away from it.