Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Mary, Martha, Lazarus and the Philadelphia Eleven

On this day the Lord has acted;We will rejoice and be glad in it! (Ps. 118:24)

I imagine these words are on the lips of many in the Episcopal Church today as we commemorate this date in history, forty years ago, when three male bishops from the United States, joined by the bishop of Costa Rica, laid hands on eleven women and ordained them into the sacred order of priests.  It was the first time the church had allowed women to be part of the sacramental priesthood since a bishop in Asia made Florence Li Tim-Oi a priest in the 1940s.  The Anglican Communion quashed her ability to function as a priest, but Rev. Li Tim-Oi never renounced her orders.

This act, denounced at the time as "irregular," is now quite common throughout the Episcopal Church.  The Church's General Convention in 1976 agreed it was time to recognize not only the Philadelphia Eleven, and the Washington Four that followed the next year; it was time for the Church to get on with accepting that God calls whoever God wants into the role of a sacramental priest, most especially the least likely characters.  At that time, it was women.  In recent times, it is members of the lesbian and gay and transgender communities.

To read a wonderful, personal reflection on this historic event, I direct you to "Telling Secrets" to read Elizabeth Kaeton's sermon from this past Sunday.

I was too young to have a definitive memory of this momentous occasion in the church.  I hadn't quite reached first grade yet.  But I do remember that not too long afterwards, sometime around 1979, Christ Church in Exeter called the Rev. Fran Potter to be our deacon.  And I was in awe to see a woman standing in the front of the church in an alb.  I remember secretly praying at her inaugural service that everything would go well for her.  I realized there were rumblings among some of the older members that we were participating in some "experiment" by having a female deacon.  But it was an experiment that said to me, and likely every girl sitting in the pews on Sundays, "The kingdom of heaven includes you, too!"   I now had a sister-in-Christ-and-in-arms in my own effort to bust the gender norms of the church.  I had already wrecked the convention of casting girls as angels and boys as shepherds in the Christmas pageant.

"I want to play a shepherd," I told the pageant director.

"But, Susie, little girls are angels.  Little boys are shepherds."

"Well, then, I want to be a shepherdess!"

Worn out from arguing with a child, I was allowed to don a robe and a head dress and played a shepherdess.  I knew I could do it.  They were supposed to be afraid of the angel Gabriel, and I could shiver and quiver better than any of the boys.

That same time of the arrival of Deacon Potter, I pressed to become an acolyte.  Our rector insisted that I had to be confirmed first.

"Why?" I demanded.

(This didn't go over well.  Children were never to ask the rector questions).  He kept giving me excuses and pats on the head, and telling me I'd have to wait.  But I kept saying that I wanted to do this now, and that I shouldn't have to wait until I was confirmed.

And, just like my insistence years earlier that I wanted to be a shepherd, my rector agreed to let me be trained to be an acolyte.  It was only later, when I had left and gone to college after serving for seven years along side the priests at Christ Church, that my rector confided to my mother that allowing me to be an acolyte at that time was one of his best decisions.  He was taking a lot of flack from people about women in the priesthood, women serving at the altar, women being front and center as part of the sacramental life of the church.

"Well, what about Judge Gage's daughter?" he would ask.  "Should she be allowed to assist with the setting of the Lord's Table?"

That would usually end the discussion because most of the older and more staid members of our congregation loved to watch me at the altar, lighting or extinguishing the candles, bringing the cruets of wine and water to the priest.  I made these members feel as if they were in a cathedral in a big city instead of our little low Protestant Episcopal Church on Pine Street.  I was one of these kids who didn't shuffle my feet as I walked.  I was precise and reverent.  If only they knew that I was cracking jokes as I handed the elements to the priest as the altar was being set!

What they did know was that I was acceptable... even as a girl with long hair... as someone who was performing a sacramental role in the service.  And if they could agree that "Judge Gage's daughter was OK," they very quickly understood that anybody's daughter was truly God's daughter... especially the ones who had been ordained.  Without knowing it, I had helped the rector make the case for women priests to the reticent and grumpy ones in our congregation.

I titled this entry "Mary, Martha, Lazarus and the Philadelphia Eleven."  Today, in the church calendar, the "official" saints of the day are the two sisters and their brother from Bethany.  One could celebrate their day with their readings... or one could use alternate readings set out for this anniversary of the first eleven women ordained in the Episcopal Church.  Interestingly, the Gospel lesson pulled for that recognition is from Luke 10, the story of Mary sitting at Jesus' feet as Martha rushes around and finally demands that Jesus tell Mary to get up and help her in the kitchen.  Jesus gently reminds Martha that "Mary has chosen the better part."  This is often seen as Jesus lending weight and credence to those who engage with Him in a contemplative, rather than an active, prayer life.  But, as I have said in other postings, I think we have to be careful to not put too much emphasis on one form of prayer or the other being "better than."

We need both Mary energy and Martha energy in our lives.  And we need Lazarus, too, who is absent from this particular reading, but probably was in the background allowing Luke to give women center stage in a gospel story.  I think this story is a good one to use with the remembrance of the courageous act done out of obedience to Love back in 1974.  Certainly the women who took part had spent many hours figuratively sitting at the foot of the Savior and inquiring much of what they should do with the inner stirrings of their hearts.  And finally it took taking an action to answer the call, an action which required the aid of men willing to defy the orders of then Presiding Bishop John Allin not to do it, to make this happen and move the church forward.  Fitting that the collect for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus reads:

Generous God, whose Son Jesus Christ enjoyed the friendship and hospitality of Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany: Open our hearts to love you, our ears to hear you, and our hands to welcome and serve you in others, through Jesus Christ our risen Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

What those women did in 1974 was to be the visible sign to all of the generous nature of God, and to open more hearts, ears and hands to enter into the service of Christ to the world.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Things Temporal and Things Eternal

Violence in Gaza, photo from The New Yorker

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom
nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon
us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so
pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen--Collect for Proper 12, BCP

One of my priest friends put out a statement on Facebook this morning, one of those "complete this phrase" kind of statements. 

"The kingdom of heaven is like...."

This was an obvious reference to tomorrow's Gospel lesson from Matthew where Jesus is wrapping up his "pick your parable" session involving scattering seeds, seeds and weeds, and finally a succession of "the kingdom of heaven is like" comparisons that include mustard seeds, yeast, pearls, hidden treasures, a whole net full of fish.  In the end, he looks at everyone and wants to know, "Do you get it?"  Dutifully, the faithful followers all nod, "Yes" and Jesus concludes, "Any scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who pulls out of his treasure what is old and what is new." 

Scribes?  Wait a minute.  Aren't the scribes "bad guys" in the narrative of Christ's ministry?  Yes, they are portrayed as among those who are constantly out to show up Jesus as a fraud.  But the scribes are also among the learned ones in the community.  And Jesus seems to be saying to his followers, "If you understand this stuff I've been saying, then you are like the learned ones who are trained for the kingdom of heaven (i.e. my kind of ministry)."  And then what are these scribes like?  Well, Jesus says, they're like the house master who has this treasure chest.  In it are things old and things new.  Does Jesus say to throw out the old?  Does Jesus say put aside the new?  No.  Jesus says the house master pulls out what is old and new.  Because this is the yin and yang that a "scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven" must have to follow in Christ's footsteps, and discern and pass through those things that are temporal while not losing sight of the eternal.

We have to do that all the time in our contemporary life.  A prime example is what one person said to my friend's posting.  Obviously, this responder was another priest and was contemplating how a look at the nightly news these days hardly reveals the kingdom of heaven.  Fighting and death tolls rising as the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis wages on, fighting that now has friends pitted against friends on Facebook as American Jews clash with their non-Jewish associates who see the conflict in Gaza as a one-sided issue.  More airplanes are crashing mysteriously overseas.  Looting is happening at the sight of the downed passenger jet in Ukraine.  The militant group ISIS is terrorizing Christians and some Muslims in northern Iraq.  Here at home, we are often treated to news of sports stars committing battery; executions that go awry because the lethal drugs worked too slowly to kill an inmate; jingoistic protests at our borders against children fleeing violence in their home countries in Central America.  Spend enough half-hours every night with just those headlines alone and it's hard to see where one can find a good comparison to the kingdom of heaven in all of that.

I don't know what that particular priest plans to say, but my answer to that post was to admit that--yes--given the news, it would be tough to talk about "the kingdom of heaven" in those circumstances.  But all of the things we see on the nightly news, the horrors and the tragedies, are never the full picture.  Even amidst the fighting in Gaza, there are Israeli and Palestinians who really are committed to peace, and really do want the rockets and shelling to stop.  For every person screaming at refugee children in buses, there are many others who are looking to find ways to address a humanitarian crisis.   And there are men in the NFL who know that it's alright to tackle another man on a football field, but it is not alright to raise your fist to your fiancee.   To me, there are signs of the eternal that flicker in the spaces in-between these stories of brokenness and trouble in our world.  In that sense, I would say, the kingdom of heaven is like the aid worker who continues to bring food and medicine to the wounded and those being displaced because of war and civil unrest.

The eternal truth is always there...even when our temporal temper tantrums seem to gain all the media attention.   And we must live with both those truths.  The task before us, if we are going to be like that scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven, is to remain in contact with our Eternal Source to know the difference between what is the new and the old.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Ups and Downs

This past week has been a rollercoaster ride on the news front.

There was much celebration and rejoicing at the news that the Church of England has finally said, "Yes," to women becoming bishops.  However, there is a caveat: if a congregation objects to a female see, they can request oversight from a male bishop.  And the seeds of likely schism begin to be sowed. Still, there is something to be joyful about.  As the Reverend Elizabeth Kaeton of "Telling Secrets" aptly noted: the Church of England has dipped a big toe into the baptismal font of the 20th century.  And those in the Southeastern United States say, "Bless their hearts!"

As you might imagine, this caused much venomous grumbling and declaring the Church of England apostate and all kinds of other nastiness coming from the Anglican Church of North America and their lot.  A Facebook friend, and fellow Episcopalian who is attending St. John's in Tallahassee, made the mistake of visiting the ACNA sites and seeing, first-hand, what hate they harbor toward the Episcopal Church, and anyone who believes women... and by extension the LGBT faithful...have a place in the church.  He noted that St. John's suffered a very painful schism back in 2005 when the rector marched out on a Sunday with many of the most wealthy and well-connected members of the congregation to start his own church.  Seeing the commentary on the CoE vote only served to rip the scab off the wound of that event for him.   Like with so much that makes headlines, my friend had seen the ugliness and recalled the pain as if it were yesterday that this split had occurred.  

But it wasn't yesterday: it was on October 2, 2005.  And, as I responded to him, that was the day that the chains that had barred so many faithful queer people, me and him included, came off the doors of St. John's.  Terrible, awful, rotten-to-the-core event that it was, that split had to happen, in my opinion, if St. John's Episcopal Church was going to be saved from its long bath in the sinful waters of homophobia.  The place was burning with anger and rage toward the Episcopal Church, and there was an air of suspicion that hung over every conversation in the place.  So it was time for the fire to be extinguished.  And out of those ashes came new life.  It took time but today that parish is doing very well. 

Also doing well has been the fight for marriage equality in Florida and elsewhere.  A Monroe County Circuit Court judge found Florida's discrimination against lesbian and gay couples getting married is unconstitutional.  The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals also upheld marriage equality in Oklahoma.  But even with these victories, the opponents of marriage equality are still fighting on, appealing the decisions, forcing more delays of the inevitable.  The same day that the Florida case happened, the rest of the world had their eyes on the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam.   A third of the passengers on that flight were activists, scientists and some of the top researchers in the field of HIV/AIDS.   The plane was apparently attacked with a ground to air missile launched from just inside the border of Ukraine, an area that has been rocked by the Russian invasion of the country.  And as information dribbles out, it appears the Russians are likely responsible for this horrendous act that has killed many engaged in a humanitarian effort to relieve suffering in Africa and Asia.  

This evening, as I sat at dinner with friends celebrating a birthday, I happened to go to my phone in search of information about an event on Facebook. I was stunned to read that one of my friends from St. John's had passed away quite suddenly.  She had been ill, but this was unexpected.  I had to excuse myself from the table to go outside, pray, and cry, before I could head back into a joyful dinner.

Ups and downs.  Life and death.  Good news and bad news.  We all want things to be safe.  But even safety is an illusion.  Part of our journey of being alive and in the world is that we will experience life in abundance... and that means we're going to have unpleasant stuff happen in our private world.  The trick is to remember that no matter what: Good Friday is followed by Easter every year on the calendar.  There is a change that comes with that, but not every change is bad... and quite frequently, it's good.

Strap in.  The rollercoaster is still moving on the tracks!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Sing My Tongue

My brain is a jukebox.  

Unbeknownst to people who encounter me on the street or in conversation, there is often a soundtrack playing very low in the background inside my head.  It's like I have "theme music" playing.  As I've noted before on this blog, this abundance of music in my mind was a gift from God when my father died.   And it is the gift that keeps on giving to this day forward.

One of the tunes that has been ever-present lately caught  me by surprise.  It's a hymn that we often sing on Maundy Thursday in the Episcopal Church, the night when we commemorate the Last Supper and strip the altar of all its finery. 

"Sing my tongue of glorious battle" is a plainsong chant.  The organ usually accompanies us until the end when, many times, the congregation and the choir sing it acappella as we stare at the nakedness of our altar.  It can be chilling and powerful.

It's curious that a tune associated with Holy Week should be so forward in my mind in the middle of what we call "Ordinary Time."  But events in this Ordinary Time have been reminding me that our Easter for this world, sometimes, feels like a distant destination and that we are perpetually caught in a loop of repeating Good Friday.  I've been keeping close watch on the situation involving the 19 year-old unceremoniously turfed out of his family home for being gay.  People in the boy's hometown have attempted to reach out to the parents and grandmother and get them to see the errors of their way.  Instead, they ignore the help, sometimes out right reject it, and continue to breathe threats against their son, all with a Bible in their hands.  

"He endures the nails, the spitting, vinegar, and spear, and reed; from that holy body broken blood and water forth proceed; earth and stars and sky and ocean, by this flood from stain are freed."

I've been saddened by this situation, and the thought that parents could be so cruel as to completely cut off a child and deny him an opportunity to see his siblings or even the family dog.  Somehow, in their worldview, treating their son and grandson this way will lead him to "change."  Still, in 2014, there is a belief out there that people "choose" their sexual orientations.  Unreal.

The good news for this young man is that, where his parents and his grandmother have failed him, others have stepped in to help.  A call to find a temporary home for him in Tallahassee has landed him a bedroom and his own bathroom at the home of a PFLAG family.  Where he's staying is being kept under wraps since the boy's father is threatening to take away the truck.  And in Tallahassee, if you don't have your own means of transportation, you are going to be at the mercy of a half-assed bus service that doesn't even take you to all parts of town.  Some folks have given job leads.  And those who know and love him from his home town are still offering him help with a little bit of cash here and there.  Good Samaritans can still be found when the ones who claim the mantle of Christ do little to exhibit the model of their Savior.  With any luck, this young man will land a job, and be able to get on his feet, get established in Tallahassee, and move forward with his life.  And there will be Easter out of this Good Friday. Perhaps we will arrive at the moment when Christ is allowed to be resurrected instead of constantly crucifying Him with a Bible in hand.

I've told those who are attempting to reach the family and talk sense into them to leave it alone for now. They've done all they can, and the best thing any one of us can do is to pray that they come to their senses. 

I look forward to hearing Easter hymns in my head. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Superb Sermon

I am fortunate in that I have many friends who are Episcopal priests in the United States, or Anglican priests elsewhere in the Communion.  And some of those friends happen to be excellent preachers.

So, rather than have me summarize this sermon delivered at Christ Church Cathedral by the dean, and my college friend, the Very Rev. Mike Kinman... I thought I'd just cut-and-paste the link to the audio.   Reading the sermon was fine; hearing it raises the bar.  Mike is doing his part to restore the good name of Christ to Christianity.

Rebekah, Hobby Lobby, and The Word of The Lord that will Heal a Village

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Trouble That's Brewing

This week, I've been gobsmacked at the news I've been hearing.

Apparently, a five-member, and all-male, majority of the United States Supreme Court has decided that not only are corporations considered "people," these bricks-and-mortar-over-the-internet-add-appropriate-sales-taxes-"people" have religious freedom, and can freely exercise their religious beliefs to opt out of portions of the mandated Affordable Care Act; namely, no birth control coverage for female employees... but coverage of male erectile dysfunction drugs is OK.

Putting aside what anyone thinks or believes about abortion and birth control, this is a dangerous precedent that the high court is establishing.  As I understand it, what these five men are saying is that any corporate CEO can claim "religious freedom" to skirt laws that he or she doesn't like because now a "closely held for-profit business" is an extension of the CEO's "personhood."

And who is most likely to invoke this "religious freedom"?  Businesses such as Hobby Lobby, who say paying for contraception violates their "Christian" values.

As I attempted to make sense of all of that, with the fast and furious opinions flying on Facebook, I found myself engaged in a lengthy phone conversation with a young man from Southwest Georgia. His parents, upon learning of his homosexuality, have thrown him out of their house, cut-off contact with him and are forbidding him from having any contact with other family members.  And, in the course of listening to this scared young man, he told me how many times his parents or his grandmother or his  aunt were telling him that he was "going to Hell" because the "Bible says this is an abomination!" They believe this because, they say, they're Christians.

And then there was the news last night of the angry mobs of white people who blocked a road and screamed at the people inside three buses.  The buses were carrying mostly undocumented immigrant children from Central America.  This gathering in a small town in California could have been South Boston in the 1970s, or the Deep South in the 1960s.  How ironic that this story ran on the same night that we, as a nation, were marking 50 years since the signing of the Federal Voting Rights Act designed to allow blacks the right to vote.

This scene, looking so similar to the violence African-Americans and the Freedom Riders faced in Alabama and elsewhere, is being played out again... this time with Central Americans in a Southern California town.  No doubt, some of those screaming the loudest at these children were probably doing so with a crucifix hanging around their necks.

Christianity is in trouble.  Not because of atheists or non-Christians.  Not because there is rampant discrimination and persecution of Christians in the United States.  Not because gay and lesbian people are getting married.  Christianity is in trouble because Christ, who should have been resurrected and ascended, is still being crucified by the very people who say that they are His followers.  Each time people who claim the mantle of Christ exhibit behavior like screaming at children, throwing teenagers out of their homes, and denying female employees a health benefit because it offends the religious beliefs of a company owner, it is the bang-bang-bang of the nails into the Body of Christ.  Worse yet, these "christians" become the face of Christ that the media is more than happy to share with a public that feeds on cynicism and division.  I've said it before that Christians are the ones waging war on Christians in this country.  It's one thing to say that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior; it is an entirely different thing to behave and live a life that actually models the ministry of Christ.

As often happens, I was struck in yesterday's Morning Prayer with the words from Psalm 119:

Let my cry come before you, O LORD;
    give me understanding, according to your word.

Let me live, and I will praise you,
    and let your judgments help me.

I have gone astray like a sheep that is lost; 
search for your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.

As I watch and listen to all this anti-Christ behavior by my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ, I am grieved.  It feels to me as if those who profess a belief in Jesus Christ have gone astray like lost sheep, and not only do they need Christ to come looking for them, they need to start looking for Christ in the eyes of the people they are cursing.  How is it Christian to scream at people?  What part of one's Christian belief is under attack if other people get a prescription for birth control?  Again, from Morning Prayer, we heard the story of Balaam and Balak.   Balaam was supposed to curse the Israelites, but God placed a blessing on his tongue:

"How can I curse whom God has not cursed?
How can I denounce those whom the Lord has not denounced?" (Num.23:8)

I think about the situation with the19 year-old who has parents and family who have turned their backs on him. Despite the things said to him, I told this young man he isn't going to Hell.  God has not cursed him; his parents have done that.  And by doing so, they have denied the Christ in him.  Same thing with the immigrant children being screamed at as they sat inside a bus which had driven from Texas to California to a processing center.  And to add more financial burden to female workers by denying them a portion of their health care coverage is not something that has come from God either.  For a "closely held" corporation to wrap itself in religion over that issue, and be allowed to do it, is mind-boggling.

Christians who keep asserting that their religion is under attack have no earthly idea what it is to really have their lives threatened for their religious beliefs.  Their children are not kidnapped and forced into adopting another religion.  Their books are not banned or burned.  Their homes are not invaded and their women raped.  No, the "christians" in this country are claiming that because this is a pluralistic society and they must share the gifts that God have given all people, they are under attack.  This makes a mockery of those who are truly under threat for their religious beliefs, while denying the seed of God that is present in all others. I don't remember that being in the Gospel.

I looked ahead to the Collect of the Day, Proper 9:

"O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen." 

Seems like a good starting point for the reflection and return to Christ necessary to save Christianity from itself!