Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Mind the Gap

This post originally appeared here as "Second-Class Baptism" on 22 November 2012. 

         In the fall of 2005, I was an exchange student from Yale Divinity School to Westcott House, a member of the Cambridge Theological Federation in Cambridge, England. It was quite an awakening for this Lutheran. Despite knowledge of some of the rifts in the Episcopal Church (USA), I had very little awareness or comprehension of the major theological divides in the Church of England. In the wake of the recent decision (11/20/12) by the General Synod of the Church of England not to ordain women as bishops, I have recalled learning about those divides, specifically through a speech I heard that semester. 

            During my time in Cambridge, I went to an event sponsored by Women and the Church (WATCH) to hear speakers arguing for the ordination of women as bishops. One speaker, whose name is lost to my memory, gave a carefully constructed and passionate speech about baptism and vocation within the church. She noted that if we do not believe women are qualified and gifted by God for leadership at any and all levels, why do we bother to baptize them? I have never forgotten that sentence, which was so stunning that the room was silent for several seconds afterwards.

            Even with disparate understandings and beliefs about baptism, most Christians agree that the washing rite reveals God’s claim on an individual and, simultaneously, a welcome of that individual into the corporate work of the church on earth. What happens to that second part when we baptize someone, but tell her that because of her sex organs- the Church will interpret how God is using her? What does it mean to pour the water, make the sign of the cross, and say, “But because of your sex, you’re only fit to carry the cross of Christ this far, in this way, and with these provisions?”

            Furthermore, when the Church places provisos for leadership based on sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or other biological circumstance, we presume a kind of certainty and zeal in speaking for God that should make us pause. Throughout history, people have been quick to use the name of God as the seal of approval on whatever preferred course of action was believed to need pursuing. This often occurred through the same kind of biblical gymnastics that still occur today- a little limbo under the inconvenient verses, a vault over the stories that are contradictory, a lovely ribbon-dancing floorshow with the few verses that, out of context, support exactly the argument one is trying to make.

            If the Church of England was honest about its history, its theology, and its current struggle to remain relevant in today’s society, perhaps the voting would have gone differently. Perhaps if the space were made for lament over the rifts in the modern church and, in the next breath, prayers for the future were offered, maybe the voting would have gone differently. Maybe if we could point out that shortly after Peter and Andrew left their nets, they were joined by Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Susanna in following Jesus- we might be able to have the conversation that nothing about the image of ministry or mission in the Bible at all resembles the way most churches and denominations are structured today. Maybe then things would go differently. 

            The main conversation that must happen, though, is the one around God’s ability to equip, regardless of biology. Either we believe that the Holy Spirit blows where She wills or we don’t. Either we believe that God is more powerful that human weakness (present in all) or we don’t. Either we believe that Jesus broke down social and gender barriers in community and communion or we don’t. Either we wrestle with our human limitations in comprehending the expansive nature of God’s mercy, call, and creative purposes or we get used to our efforts failing as God says, “Oh, no, you don’t.”

          The failure of the General Synod to pass, by just six votes, a measure allowing for the ordination of women as bishops is not a sign of failure on the part of either side. It is a sign that there is a gap between the understanding of the gift of baptism and the Church’s willingness to allow all people to live into that gift. That space creates an unholy chasm into which many gifts will fall and go unused because of the pain in this construction: “You are a child of God, but here’s exactly what that looks like.” When a significant church body, like the Church of England, says to women, “Your skills are useful this far and no further,”- what most women and girls hear is this: “God loves you as you are, but would love you more if you were a man.” If that is the case, why, and into what, are we baptizing women? As they say on the London tube (subway), “Mind the gap, please.” 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Hemmed in Thanksgiving (Sermon 11/18)

Isaiah 6:1-8

            There are many details in this story that can be distracting. Who was King Uzziah? What exactly does a seraph look like?  Why is Isaiah’s call to be a prophet happening six chapters in, instead of in chapter 1? All of these are good questions, but not ultimately what this short passage is about.

            Isaiah is in the holy of holies, inside the innermost part of the temple. He is a having a vision or an experience, where the shapes on the Ark of the Covenant are slowly transformed until they are no longer carvings, but are revealing to him the activity that happens around the throne of God.

            When Isaiah says, “Woe is me…” This is not a Charlie Brown-kick-the-dirt kind of grousing. It’s a gulp of terror. To see God, in Hebrew Scriptures, is to know that you are about to die. No one sees the face of God and lives. Isaiah has nothing to offer; yet what happens next isn’t based on what he can bring. It’s based on what God can do and how Isaiah responds.

            God’s attendants come and purify Isaiah, giving him a real experience of forgiveness and grace in the presence of God… mercy when he expected to die, absolution without a sacrifice or offering, righteousness on God’s terms (not human definitions). Thus, Isaiah is so moved that when God converses with the heavenly host: Who will go for us? Whom shall I send?- Isaiah pipes up, “I’ll go! Send me!”- even before he knows what he will be asked to do or say.

            Isaiah is so grateful for his life and for grace, that he’s willing to undertake a task from God- the details of which he does not know, but if he thought for a minute about prophetic history, he’d probably offer someone else’s name instead. Isaiah realizes that God does not abandon unclean people, but makes them holy, makes them ready, and invites them into the work that needs to be done. He says, “Send me”, not because he is an amazing prophet, but because he recognizes the grace in being involved in God’s work in the world.

            How much of God does Isaiah see? Certainly not God’s face or even God’s hands- these are not visible. Isaiah only gets a view of God’s feet: “The hem of God’s robe fills the temple.” Only God’s feet… but it is enough. This experience, God’s feet and hem, an encounter with forgiveness, is enough to move Isaiah to gratitude and to action.

            In the coming week, most of us will be considering the things for which we are grateful. We will listen to others around us say for what they are thankful. Almost in the same breath, as we speak of gratitude, we will think of new things that we want or perceive that we need. What if we stopped and just thought about the hem of God’s robe? What if we became absorbed, like Isaiah, in a vision of God’s activity in the world, in our communities, in our lives? And what would happen if we realized that all we are grateful for, all that we are able to perceive is just the hem of God’s robe?

            It’s not the whole picture. It’s not even half. The grace that we are able to comprehend is just the tip of the iceberg. And yet it is enough. It is enough for us to know just this much and to not die. Let this be your Thanksgiving thought: all that you can think of to list as blessings in your life barely begins to list all that God has done for you.

            So it is for all people and all creation. Having received more, and costlier, grace than we can comprehend through Christ, may God’s Spirit move our thanksgiving beyond “thank you” to “Here I am. Send me” – a thanksgiving response to the grace of in being involved in God’s work in the world.


Grace: Motivator or Excuse? (Sermon 11/11)

Jonah 1, 3-4

            I do not love the last line of the hymn “O Zion, Haste”: “Let known whom he has ransomed fail to greet him/ through your neglect, unfit to see his face.” That makes me itchy all over, in part because I think salvation is not my job. I don’t save people. Jesus has saved people. Isn’t that the point of grace? That it’s available to all people and we don’t work for it.

            Yet what is grace, saving grace, costly grace, grace that comes from death and resurrection, if I don’t know about it? What does it mean to me? Furthermore, what does it mean to the person who knows, but doesn’t think it is worth talking about every day? What does it mean to the person who knows about grace, who believes grace is amazing and true, but not quite amazing and true enough to risk anything for it? What does grace mean to the person who loves benefitting from it, but not enough to take a message of grace to people who ache for grace, people in a place like Ninevah?

            The story of Jonah has a very specific function in the Hebrew Scriptures. We tend to narrow it down to the part about the big fish, sometimes forgetting how Jonah ended up in that place anyway. A few people say the conversion of a whole city is a bigger miracle, especially with such a lousy sermon, “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown.” We could talk about resisting God’s call in our lives, but that’s not why the story of Jonah is important or why it lasted for years and years, even to us today.

            Jonah is written down in this very critical time period in the Hebrew scripture history, when things are going okay for the Israelites. With a righteous leader and the exile far off enough into the future as to be unpredicted, the Hebrew people can live for a moment into what it feels like to be “chosen people”.

Basking in God’s favor, as they see it, however, they are doing nothing to communicate the message of one God- creator and redeemer of all- to the people around them. They have forgotten that this is for what they have been chosen: to carry the message of Adonai to the world. They love the idea of a gracious and merciful God, as long as the grace and mercy are for them. Not the others nearby and certainly not the others far away.

Jonah has no interest in taking a message of grace to Ninevah, a city full of non-Hebrews, a city of infamous iniquity. Why should they get the grace he knows God will provide? So he goes in the opposite direction to Tarshish and, when that plan seems foiled, he’d rather die by drowning than go to Ninevah.

Why should Jonah go? If God will be gracious in the end anyway, why does it matter if Jonah goes or not? Why are you here this morning? At some point, we all have to decide if grace is an excuse or an motivator? Are we using the grace of God, the grace we believe that applies to all, to relieve us of responsibility? Are we skipping the third verse because we know that people will still get to see Jesus- no matter what we do?

Or is grace our motivator? Are we motivated by joy in our salvation? Are we stirred up in knowing that God intends something better for the world now, as well as the world to come? Not only that, but God chooses to use us in the bringing about of those improvements? Are we moved enough by the idea of grace to embrace a call to good works?

By hearing the story of Jonah, the Hebrew people of the time were reminded that God’s gift of grace to them was not to set them above others, but to bring them into the midst of a world that truly needed to hear about the one God- maker and redeemer of all.

The last couple sentences of Jonah are my favorite in the whole of the Bible. Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

They reveal God’s sense of humor and God’s boundless love for all. Furthermore, Jonah’s whole story reveals God’s intention to use each of us to share that love and the message of repentance and grace. For me, I have to consider these lines with the last line of that hymn. Even if I believe that people receive grace through the faithfulness of Christ, there is still work for me to do… for you to do… so that people may see a face of Christ in this life.

Are you moved enough by the gift of grace to go to Ninevah? To do the very last thing that you want to do? Grace is not simply for heaven later, it is to prevent feeling like hell is on earth now. Each of us has a call and gifts to help people experience the presence of Christ with them today.  That’s why we’re here, not to simply see friends, have communion, and check off church for a week. We gather to be recharged so that we can go out and publish glad tidings… tidings of peace… tidings of Jesus… redemption and release. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day Prayer: Recessional


God of our fathers, known of old,   
   Lord of our far-flung battle-line,   
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
   Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,   
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
   The Captains and the Kings depart:   
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
   An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,   
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
   On dune and headland sinks the fire:   
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
   Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!   
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,   
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose   
   Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,   
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
   Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust   
   In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
   And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,   
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Rudyard Kipling, 1897

Source: A Choice of Kipling's Verse (1943)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Around the Edges (All Saints Sermon)

1 Kings 17:1-16

            A famous theologian once said, “You should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” That can be tough, because then in one hand I have stories of droughts and floods, wars and struggles between ruling parties, unexpected deaths, people struggling to make ends meet, and people longing for justice… and is that the hand that holds the newspaper or the Bible? Sometimes, it can be hard to tell one from the other without looking carefully and remembering what each one is supposed to do. The newspaper shows us a world that longs for God’s kingdom to come or has forgotten its promise. The Bible reminds us of the promise and shows us God’s actions through history, so that we have a foundation on which to base our hope in and expectation of God’s future actions.

            If the Bible were like other history books, today’s reading would be about Ahab’s reaction to the prophet Elijah. We would have a detailed account of the king’s comings and goings and how other, sycophantic “prophets” would have advised him, and (almost certainly) what Jezebel had to say about the matter. Yet, Israel’s history does not chronicle the kings as much as the people affected by the king and the king’s decisions. Remember that when Israel called for a king, the people were reminded that the Lord was to be their one leader and a king would come with some serious consequences for their national wellbeing.

            Thus, instead of learning more about Ahab, we get a story of Elijah fleeing for his life and a widow with a child, someone who is directly affected by the policies of the king. The first situation that is facing the widow is that she is a widow. Her source of income is gone. Her husband’s family, if still living, hasn’t taken her in to be with them. Her own family, if still living, would not be expected to do so. So she depends on the generosity of others, toward her and toward her son, so that they may live. She may be able to do little tasks in exchange for food or coin to make ends meet, but she certainly lives with very little extra and, consequently, very little participation in societal life.

            The second situation facing the widow (and her neighbors) is the drought. The writer of 1 Kings is careful to point out that the Lord says through Elijah that it will not rain for several years. The significance of this is not that the Lord wants people to suffer in a drought, but that the Lord wants them to remember who makes the rain. The Canaanite god, Baal, was thought to be the giver of rain. If it was dry, Baal was dead. If it rained, he was alive. But Elijah’s prophesy points out that it is the Lord God who is the giver of life. So now we have a situation where people are going to be tightening their belts and have less to give to the widow, whom God has commanded them to remember. We have a prophet who has angered a king who is clearly refusing to acknowledge the Lord as God (and the only God).

            Finally, the widow has a plan for how she and her son will die and here comes a prophet of the Lord, distinguished in some way that lets her know that he’s a holy man, who wants some of her last bits of food. Now, the widow is from the same region (Sidon) as Jezebel, so she is likely to be a worshiper of Baal. Yet she speaks to Elijah with the words he spoke to Ahab, “As the Lord your God lives…” Her circumstances are overwhelming and horrifying. If we were reading to this point in a newspaper article, woman struggling to make ends meet in bad times is confronted by a man who claims to speak for God who tells her to feed him… Who would root for her? Who would blame her if she closed the door on him? Who would say she should absolutely make him some food? Who would say, “The Lord never gives us more than we can handle” and expect her to bake that bread?

            Elijah promises her that she and her son will have enough food, throughout the drought, if she helps him. And so she did. Hooray! Faithful action pays off! It’s a heart-warming page 2 story!

            But not so fast, remember earlier in the story when the ravens feed Elijah? We’re all familiar with ravens- eating out of dumpsters and what’s been hit in the street. Who here would eat meat and bread brought to them by a raven? Even more so, in ancient Israel, ravens are nasty, unclean birds. You don’t eat scavengers, yet they are what God sends to keep Elijah alive. The unexpected birds are how God provides for the prophet.

Similarly, the widow, with all of the circumstances piled against her, should not be expected to provide for a prophet. There are better-favored people to do that, yet God’s provision for her allows her to have an expected role as a sustainer, as a provider, as a person whom God has not forgotten. The God she does not worship has not failed to provide for her and, furthermore, has not forgotten use her to the hope of others and for the hope of creation.

This is what it means to be a saint. It’s not about having great stories written about you or having powerful visions or heroic actions. It’s about faithful action, in spite of what else is happening, and it is about being the hope in God of the people around us. The people whose lives we remember today and the lives that the Spirit is shaping today are exactly this… lives that remember the people around them, lives that are structured by small, unseen remembrances, gifts, and help.

Sometimes we do have more than we can handle on our own. Sometimes life does pile up. It is not merely by our own determination that we survive, but by the help and support of others- who bring us bread, words of hope, silent companionship, refills of oil for our jars. This is what sainthood looks like… un-haloed, but still hallowed, unsung, but still a song, unremarked, but still remarkable.

It is work that happens through family and friends AND through outsiders and rejects (in this story, widows and ravens). This is how the Spirit moves-from all directions, expected and unexpected. This is how God reminds us who is in charge. This is how saints are made, how creation is renewed, and how Christ continues to make resurrection happen out of death in this life.

A famous theologian once said, “You should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” In one hand, I have stories of droughts and floods, wars and struggles between ruling parties, unexpected deaths, people struggling to make ends meet, and people longing for justice… and is that the newspaper or the Bible?

In the end, it doesn’t matter. Either way, the Holy Spirit is in these stories, breathing from the edges and from the middle, encouraging people (and sometimes animals) to actions that save and preserve life. It’s not the headline news, but it must be remembered. God is in charge, no matter what else happens, and, with that eternal truth, comes this corollary: the Spirit is still making saints. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sunday Prayer: All Saints

A reading from the Wisdom of Solomon (3:1-9)

 But the souls of the righteous are 
in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them. 
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster, 
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace. 
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality. 
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; 
like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt-offering he accepted them. 
In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble. 
They will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign over them for ever. 
Those who trust in him will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with him in love,
because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones,
and he watches over his elect. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Statement of Faith for All Saints Day

We believe in God, who brings creation out of chaos, healing out of brokenness, light out of darkness, and life out of death.

We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son and our Lord.
Jesus came into the world for teaching, for healing, for reconciliation, and to announce the reign of God’s kingdom.
Though his work was opposed, even unto death, the Word of Life could not be silenced.
He was resurrected for the sake of all, including we who are gathered here.
We await his return in glory and we continually look for his presence in this life.
We trust this expectation is not in vain. 

We believe in the Holy Spirit, giver of the gifts of community, communion, and consolation.
The Spirit preserves our hearts in the midst of things we cannot understand and connects us to the cloud of faithful witnesses, who are our encouragement.
The Spirit shapes us as God’s people and gives us faith and courage to respond to the gifts of mercy, grace, and healing until we reach the place our faith moves from hope to revelation.