In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Epiphany 4A

A reflection on the readings for Epiphany 4A: Micah 6. 1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31, Matthew 5:1-12 by the Rev. Dr. Sarah Rogers

Not for the first time since I started writing for this blog I am completely confused about the readings…The Church in Wales is using 1 Kings 17. 8-16, 1 Corinthians 1. 18-31, John 2. 1-11. So, the only reading we have in common is 1 Corinthians. I can quite understand why the Church in Wales (as well as the Church of England) have opted for Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, it has been sadly neglected during this season of Epiphany, but the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount also have a lot to offer.

The Beatitudes give us a complete vision of how to live, the eight Beatitudes should be considered together, not simply as individual statements reflecting different categories of people. Rather, they reflect the broad spectrum of followers of Jesus.

The Beatitudes outline Jesus’ mission to Israel. He has come as a herald of good tidings to the poor and oppressed and they receive hope through God. Blessings will be heaped upon those who are poor in spirit, those who grieve, those who care about what is right, those who are meek, those who are compassionate, those who are pure in heart, those who spread peace and those who are persecuted in Jesus’ name. There is no room for those who have an over-inflated opinion of themselves..humility is the order of the day. I think that is reflected in Jesus’ example at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. After-all, it is Mary, his mother that pushes him forward. She expects that simply explaining the situation to her son will lead him to do something about it. When we come to the end of our human resources, and we simply have nothing left to say or do, or give in a situation, so too we can turn to God in prayer and tell him what has happened. On the one hand there is that vision of the doting mother, turning to her son..on the other a vision of us all turning to God in prayer. Jesus doesn’t rebuff his mother quite as forcefully as it seems, the term ‘woman’ in Aramaic (or even in Greek) is not as forceful as it appears in English. Jesus uses the same term when he is dying on the cross.

This is a family wedding, men and women would have been separated at the ceremony and the party afterwards. Mary surprises her son by venturing near him, on the wrong side of the divide, to suggest they need to find some more wine. It would not have necessarily been Jesus’ responsibility, he and Mary we probably not the closest relatives, but Mary probably wanted to save her nearest and dearest any embarrassment…and great embarrassment there would have been had the party run out of wine..!
Jesus isn’t quite ready to come forward yet…he responds in humility ‘my time has not yet come’. I’m not sure how ‘its okay, it is under control, I am the Son of God and can do anything’ would have gone down…Jesus would probably have been laughed out of the room.

Mary, however is determined, she is not put off by Jesus’ response, she reassures the officials that they should do whatever Jesus tells them, and so they follow his instructions and that first great miracle is performed.
The Beatitudes teach us that persistence in faith is absolutely necessary, without persistence we will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. There must be persistence despite persecution, we must persist and persevere for what is right.

Mary knows that pushing her son forward is right, she knows that sooner or later he must be revealed as the Son of God, the Messiah. He might not be quite ready, but sometimes, it is our mothers that know best – even the Son of God relies on his mother to set him on the right road.
I think Mary is the ultimate example of perseverance, what joy and pain she must have gone through throughout the life of her most beloved Son. She bore a tremendous burden and that gives us great hope.

There are many difficulties in this life, as outlined in the beatitudes. We must persevere in faith for our Saviour Jesus Christ’s sake. Perhaps women understand that most of all. Life is not always easy, and it seems that there are always battles to face. We must always remember that we are all one in Christ Jesus, we are all inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven. As Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians ‘consider your own call, brothers and sisters.’ We are all called in equality to the kingdom of heaven and we all have our own role to play. God calls us all, no matter how small, weak or insignificant we may be. It may be that Mary stood up and fought for her Son who she believed in, and pushed him forward before his time at the Wedding feast at Cana, but that is our role too. No matter how small or insignificant we are, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount shows that we must stand up for what is right, no matter what we may face, and our reward will be in heaven.

Mary is such a perfect example of faith, let us emulate her as we work to build the Kingdom of God here on earth. We all have a role to play in building the Kingdom of God here on earth, and whatever we do, no matter how small or insignificant it may be if we do it in faith, in hope and in trust then our reward will be great in heaven.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Epiphany 3A

Reflection for Epiphany 3A:Matthew 4:12-23, by The Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy-Keimig

It’s just an ordinary day, and you’re going about the business of your life. Maybe at work, or in an aisle at Hy-vee trying to decide between the corn and peas, vacuuming a rug, shoveling snow, chatting on-line….and suddenly, there is this person you have never seen before and he stops in front of you and says, “So…. Kate or Sally, Rick or Jim…. Drop everything you’ve got going on there, your tasks, your work, whatever it is and follow me.” Yeah, what would we think, what would we do? Well, that’s the story this morning. Jesus is passing by the Sea of Galilee and he sees Simon and Andrew fishing, doing their every day, regular jobs, and he says “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And “immediately” just like that, no questions asked, as Matthew tells the story, they leave their nets and they follow him. And so, too with James and John. He calls to them and “immediately” they, too leave their boat, their nets, and their father and off they go with him. Ordinary people doing the ordinary tasks of their day until this extraordinary thing happens to them that changes not only their lives but the whole course of history. So do you ever wonder…what made them go? What was it that made them “immediately” drop what they were doing, leave their livelihood, their worldly goods and family member behind and go off with this iterant preacher?

Maybe it was something about Jesus. In John’s Gospel last week we heard another version of this same story. On that story too, the people whom Jesus called to him were transformed by abiding with him, experiencing him.

Perhaps it was God’s power at work. Theologian and writer Barbara Brown Taylor agrees with this. She says that we tend to forget about God’s ability “…. to sneak up on people who are thinking about lunch, not God, and smack them upside the head with glory.”

The truth is we don’t really know what made them do it. What we do know is that they were nothing special as people go. Not wise, or educated, or by any reports even particularly religious or holy people. Just your average folks. Ordinary people called to an extraordinary task of becoming the ones, right along side Jesus of bearing God’s message, of bearing the light. John says Jesus is the light… not much further along in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, "You are the light of the world. . . Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16). And that’s a big inclusive “you”…not just directed to a few disciples on a mountain over two thousand years ago.

Those disciples can give us a lot of hope, though. Here they were, right up close and personal with Jesus, with him every day as he taught and healed and lived out his mission and even so, they didn’t always quite “get” Jesus or his mission. While the Gospels give them their bright and shining moments, we also see them in their all-too bumbling humanity. And yet, they have become our spiritual ancestors, part of that great cloud of witnesses that remind us who and Whose we are. They help us remember that this is God’s work we are being tapped for, called up out of our lives for, that it is God who supports us with what we need as we leave our particular boats and our nets to follow Jesus, and that we can bring whatever we have, whoever we are and that God can make use of us to transform our little corner of the world. God can use us, even if we don’t quite get how it works at the time.

We are all called by baptism to be co-creators with God in building God’s kingdom on earth. We know that God desires that this is a kingdom of mercy and justice, peace and compassion. We know that we are called to love God and love our neighbor. We have Jesus, Emmanuel, God who is with us to show us how to be in this kingdom. We do not have to be perfect in our efforts. Those who went before surely were not! Sometimes we are like Simon and Andrew and James and John who did respond immediately but then spent most of the rest of their discipleship career bumbling along, well-intentioned but often confused, trying to figure out just what it was that this Jesus was asking of them. Hearts in the right place, but often feeling just a half bubble off in trying to do the will of God.
The world as we know it is in great darkness. We are called to be the bringers of the only light that can truly shine through…. Sharing the message of God’s unending love and presence, standing for justice, being peacemakers, bringing mercy to those in need, speaking for the voiceless, healing… feeding.. clothing…tending….All these ordinary acts in our ordinary lives, can bring about extraordinary transformations….people sitting in darkness seeing light….God’s kingdom right here and now.
So whatever it means to us… stretching ourselves to try to see beyond our own small worldview to try to see with God’s eyes, or perhaps turned in a new direction entirely we simply turn our lives "in the same direction as God's life" and let "our wills spill into the will of God" in Barbara Brown Taylor’s words, we have an opportunity follow him, too.

So on an ordinary day, if he came, and he said, “YOU are the light; will you come and bear it into the darkness with me?” Would we drop our nets and go?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Epiphany 2

A reflection on Epiphany Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 by The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt

Prophets bring us good news that is wrapped up like fish and chips in the bad news of yesterday’s newspaper. After such a week as this, a week of shootings, deaths, violence, floods, riots, epidemics, the anniversaries of earthquakes, and endless punditry on civil discourse, or the lack thereof, gun control or the lack thereof, crosshairs as emblems of surveyors instruments or automatic assault rifles, we NEED good news. We’ll take it wrapped up in anything.

This week we have three readings and four prophets: John the Baptist, Jesus, Isaiah, and our American prophet of Monday’s commemoration, Martin Luther King, Jr. – three out of those four killed for bringing God’s message of hope and possibility and new life.

Last week we read Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan. This week, we read the version of this same story in the Gospel of John. There is no crowd scene here; John is alone as Jesus approaches. He admits that he had not met this person Jesus before, but recognizes him immediately: “Behold the Lamb of God!” Nor does John actually baptize Jesus: “I saw the Spirit descend as a done from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

Baptism and witness: the crux of this story of Jesus’ baptism is that from now on all creation is under a new reality, and John, and all of us who read this gospel, are to be witnesses to it. This very act re-creates creation; the water itself is made new. As Jesus says elsewhere, you cannot put new wine into old wineskins. Jesus is not the “cleanse” here, but the cleanser. Jesus whooshes in from God, making the creation come alive in the way God intended it to be. This “Lamb of God” is not the temple sacrifice offered up by flawed and sinful human beings in hopes that God will forgive. This is the Lamb OF GOD, sent BY GOD to break all those old wacky patterns and to bring sinful human beings back into a relationship with God. Come back, God is saying to us. Come back. I offer YOU the Lamb as a way to begin the restoration of OUR relationship.
The passage from Isaiah also speaks of God’s yearning for a restored relationship with humanity. This reading is from Second Isaiah, the author of chapters 40 through 66, writing to the people Israel, still in exile in Babylon but about to be released and sent home to Jerusalem. Cyrus of Persia has conquered the Babylonians, and to Isaiah, he is God’s agent of redemption, even though a non-believer.

The Good News which Isaiah proclaims is that Israel’s suffering is over. The exile was God’s punishment for the people’s faithlessness, but their agony has exceeded their guilt. The graciousness of God now triumphs and what pains they now feel, as they head home, are the birth pangs of the new Jerusalem. If older prophets were harsh with the people for their failings, this one wants to strengthen and comfort these weary people, and to encourage them to be the people God created them to be: the people who seek justice, who live righteously, who are witnesses to the nations of how God intended the world to be.

God’s revelation continues. God still says new things to all of us. God still sends prophets. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood his call to be God’s agent in a troubled time in our history. To a nation that in part understood itself – ourselves – as the new Israel, the city on the hill, to which the nations will flock, a beacon of righteousness, Martin Luther King’s message and words resonated. Some believed God sent him with a message of hope; to others, his words were dangerous and destructive, or rash and impudent. In the most simplistic terms, King the prophet was calling our nation to live up to God’s expectations for us – and even our expectations for ourselves – for our civil society, for our abundance, our justice, our fairness, our openness. For Christians, theologian James Cone writes,
“God’s revelation has nothing to do with white suburban ministers admonishing their people to be nice to black people. It has nothing to do with voting for open occupancy or having a memorial service for Martin Luther King, Jr. God’s revelation means a radical encounter with the structures of power which Martin King fought against to his death.”
As I write this, I can only imagine the barrage of words we will get this weekend, as pundits on the left and right claim the legacy of King and pronounce what they tell us is the (or at least their) final word on the dreadful shootings in Tucson. These pundits will not likely notice, as James Cone does, that what happens is not about them. They won’t get it that what Martin Luther King did and said is not about them, either. What happened last week was a horrible rupture in the relationship God yearns to have with us, the relationship that God has been working on and yearning for since creation. At the end of the above quote paragraph, Cone asserts,
“In a word, God’s revelation means liberation, nothing more and nothing less.”
This is the prophets’ good news, wrapped up in all the troubles the world can dish out.

i James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (New York: J.P. Lippincott Co., 1970), p. 92

Monday, January 10, 2011

Hope for Our Souls

This is a special edition to the Feminist Theology blog,originally written for and posted on my personal blog, but crossposted here at the suggestion of Janine, who wrote her reflection on the Baptism of Jesus before the violent events in Tucson unfolded.

I didn't preach today but I did go to church. I went wondering what words of comfort or wisdom I would hear to help me understand the violence, anger, and insanity, that fed the shootings in Tucson on Saturday. I know this shooting feels particularly personal to me because I lived there for a time and I have been to several events with Congresswoman Giffords. I hold her in high regard. When I heard the news yesterday I was stunned and profoundly saddened.

Having lived there, I know first-hand the propensity toward anger, prejudice, and violence that exists. Alarmingly, these have been increasing over the last few years,particularly in that region of Southern Arizona. It was disturbingly high and chronic in the small community I lived in south of Tucson. While it's true that members of the congregation carried concealed weapons which were always a concern, there were more pronounced issues to contend with. These included chronic, unresolved anger,a pronounced sense of entitlement, a high tolerance for inappropriate acting-out without consequences, and a higher than average level of depression and substance abuse. All of these were further fueled by systemic prejudice and fear.

On this Sunday morning when we gathered to celebrate the feast day of the baptism of Jesus, what sense could we make of the violence yesterday? Eighteen shot, six dead including a Judge and a nine year old girl, and a loved Congresswoman in critical condition, shot point blank in the head.

We didn't baptize anyone in the church I went to today, nor did we renew our baptismal vows, nor did the preacher talk about the meaning of baptism. It was a fine sermon., for another time. It just was not what I needed to hear on this day, the day after that tragedy.

Perhaps, if we had taken some time reflect on the Baptismal Rite, I may have found a bit of what I was hoping for, some understanding, some hope, some accountability?

Yes, accountability.

I know a young man shot these people...but we will fail to learn from this if we minimize this to him and his apparent “mental instability.”

We are a people who have gone astray. We are a people who have forgotten how to live in kindness. We are a people who have forgotten what it means to sin.

Then the Celebrant asks the following questions of the candidates who
can speak for themselves, and of the parents and godparents who speak
on behalf of the infants and younger children.

Question Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer I do.

Question Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer I do.

Question Do you promise to follow and obey him as your  Lord?
Answer I do.

Do we really understand what we are saying here? What sin is? What evil is? Do we even really believe that there are such things as sin and evil? Or do we think the Church made them up just to make us feel ashamed and submissive?

As a society we tend to relegate sin to a set of cultural bound moral behaviors. This complicates and minimizes sin because these cultural bound moral behavior(s) deemed "sinful" change over time. Take divorce and remarriage, for example. The Church has enforced the idea that marriage is forever, regardless of how unhealthy a marriage is. The Church has said that divorce is a sin and remarriage is also a sin. In some churches today divorced and remarried people cannot receive Holy Communion.

Sometimes a marriage needs to end because the marriage is causing brokenness and harm. Sometimes marriages need to be worked on, for each party to examine the brokenness and work for reparation and reconciliation and forgiveness. Sometimes we just have to live our marriage vows, to love faithfully through good times and tough times, to work toward wholeness of self and other, instead behaving in ways that cause further brokenness.

The thing is, sin is about behavior - any behavior that causes harm to another and produces broken relationships with God, self, and other human beings. Looked at this way, as broken relationship, we can redirect our efforts from reducing sin to something it is not and toward what sin is.

I tend to define sin as any behavior that causes brokenness between God, self, and others. By this I mean anything that causes me to become broken with God, or broken with myself, or broken with others. Evil is the root that causes that brokenness. Evil is the force that tempts us. Evil is the power that draws us and pulls at us, distorting how we think and see, fooling us into self-deception, encouraging us to act upon self-deprecation, or grandiosity, arrogance, entitlement, and or violence. Evil is real and so is sin. Just look at how broken our world is. How lost we have become. How even basic civility has been pushed aside, how we have lost the ability to assume the best in others.

As a Christian I believe that we humans have souls. It's even possible that there is a “communal soul,” of sorts, that forms in congregations, in communities, in countries. The soul, individually and corporately, responds to how we nourish it and care for it, or neglect it. If we feed the soul with care and compassion we will show care and compassion to others. If we feed the soul with anger and mean-spirited words, we will become angry and mean spirited people. Yes, words matter.

Perhaps that is why the baptismal rite has the entire community listen to those taking these vows and then asks the community to respond with their support:

Celebrant Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?
People We will.

We are all responsible. We all need to renounce evil and embrace compassion, renounce sin, and embrace love, renounce fear and embrace trust, renounce anger and embrace hope. We need the redemption that can only come from turning away from behaviors that cause brokenness in the world, with God/self/others, and turning toward reconciliation. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking this is something we can do on our own - but we can do it with God's help.

In the Episcopal Church the baptismal covenant reminds us of this:

Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and  fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever  you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all  people, and respect the dignity of every human  being?
People I will, with God’s help.

So, here is what I wanted to hear: we are all accountable for the sins and evils of the world we live, including the violence yesterday. We are accountable by things we have done and things we have not done. We are accountable by participating, in any way, in acts that have caused brokeness instead of acts that seek wholeness. We all need to turn and return to God, to seek absolution and reconciliation, and to move forward - with God's help - to live as God would have us live.

And, perhaps, with that, turning to God and with God's help living as God would have us, we will find hope for our souls.

Crossposted on SeekingAuthenticVoice

Saturday, January 8, 2011

First Sunday after Epiphany: Baptism of Jesus

A reflection on the Propers for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, the Baptism of Jesus: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17 by Janine Goodwin, M.A., M.S. Ed.

“See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”

These new things were strange to the people who first heard them. If we set aside the familiarity of the readings, they are still strange to us now. These passages are not new in the sense that we have never heard of them, but they are most likely new in the sense that they still challenge us to look outside our preconceptions and ask what uncomfortable changes we may need to make if we want to follow Jesus. They remind me of a remark made by G. K. Chesterton, a man with whom I disagree on more points than I have time to discuss, but with whom I must agree on this point: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not been tried.”

Speaking in a world full of rulers jostling for territory and wealth, Isaiah shows us not a ruler who will conquer all the other rulers, but a servant more concerned with justice than with power, one who will not exercise force but who will not rest until the necessary work is complete.

Jesus goes outside the religious and political power structure of his time to accept a cleansing that is not for ritual purity, as was the custom, but is a commitment to act righteously and a preparation for a coming judgment; he takes this strange bath at the hands of a ragged outsider who lives in the wilderness and makes strange prophecies.

The passage from Acts is the conclusion of a story in which Peter experiences a strange and repulsive dream and a stranger event in waking life, both of them pointing to the need for the young church to give up its ideas about what customs are acceptable and what are, welcome people from very different cultures, and find a way to include them. Instead of forcing people to change in order to be included, the early church finds itself called to change in order to accept the people the Holy Spirit sends to them.

In these scriptures, God is indeed doing new things, and as usual, is not doing the new things most of us may want. We tend to imagine new things that will make our lives easy, secure, and contented and give us positive change without requiring loss or sacrifice, or we become nostalgic about a past that we see as simpler and better than the present. In both these cases, we are looking for a time when everyone will be happy, safe, and healthy and there are no looming disasters or worrisome uncertainties, forgetting that no such time has ever existed anywhere. Total security in this life is a fantasy that can only be maintained by putting a lot of energy into denial about the past and magical thinking about the future, and our consumer culture is more than ready to use that fantasy to sell us things that are supposed to fix everything and give us trouble-free, uniformly positive change while reminding us of how tasty Grandma’s cookies were. We can’t, however, follow that fantasy without tuning out the messages of today's readings.

Prophets like Isaiah are not just noble souls who give us words to live by (or to read sonorously in beautiful places and then forget); they are also radicals who were spurned and often killed by the power structures of their times. No one knew whether the prophets of their times are true or false, which leaves us with the dreadful responsibility of discernment and the lifelong task of becoming people who can discern responsibly and honestly, because not every person who sounds strange to us is a prophet, but a true prophet is always going to sound strange. The people making prophetic utterances right now may be fakes or faddists. They may be mentally unstable, and they could still be right even if they are; I have long suspected that our culture’s fear of people with mental illness and other mental disabilities is largely due to the fact that such people often have the ability to see uncomfortable truths and speak them far too clearly for anyone’s comfort. True prophets, the ones speak audacious things out of a deeper sanity that challenges the prevailing insanities of a given culture, make enormous demands on us if we take them seriously. Prophets are very dangerous people; the true ones are more dangerous to our security and our self-satisfaction than the false ones.

Jesus, in today’s Gospel, does the one thing that Jesus does consistently: he defies expectation. He practices his faith by going to a wild prophet and accepting a strange rite. He risks being seen as wrong. God’s voice names him as a beloved son, and sets him on the road to a ministry of healing, prophecy, and teaching that will lead to crucifixion because his words frighten both his own people and the empire that conquered them. He goes to John, an outsider who has taken a traditional ritual in a new direction, a step that would cause some present-day churches to dismiss him as a heretic and others to begin a long and careful process of study before they would consider joining in the changes the wild man is making down by the river. John is also a prophet who calls for repentance and talks of a coming kingdom and a judgment, a prophet who will be imprisoned because he confronts a local ruler about his personal ethics and killed because of a family squabble. John is not a safe person to know. Neither is Jesus.

Peter’s radiantly beautiful statement of faith comes between two struggles; his struggle with God and himself over what parts of his faith tradition are unchangeable and which ones must be changed, and his struggle with the church over the same issue once he is comes to believe what he is hearing and seeing. He is convinced, he brings the prophetic word to his companions in faith, and he faces condemnation, argument, and the real risk of exclusion should the wider church refuse what he brings to them.

These are difficult stories if we want comfort and continuity. They are calls to responsibility even if we want to make changes in our own lives and in the life of the world. The kind of change and repentance the prophets and Jesus call for are not easy; they require painful honesty, hard work, and sacrifice. They will lead to opposition. On the private level, people trying to make positive changes in their own lives frequently encounter opposition from those close to them when the change becomes apparent and challenges the comfort level of others. People trying to make a difference at larger levels are met with even more opposition and frequently hear that change is impossible—as though the choices we make or fail to make were not changing the world around us at every moment. It is hard to step forth in faith and trust God to lead us through change. It may seem easier to cling to what we have, yet what we cling to may also be lost.

This is the good news for feminist theology, for those working for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church, for all who believe that the churches can and will survive in a shifting world: that God is indeed telling us that new things are possible, that the outsider and the prophet are friends of Jesus, that institutions can be open to looking at tradition differently, respecting it and seeing what more needs to be done. We need humility, reason, respect for tradition, and clear thinking; we need to make responsible choices and be ready to face opposition. We need most of all to trust that we will be led into truth, to pray, and to listen for the voice of the One who calls us in prophecy, in dream, and in daily life.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Christmas II and Epiphany

A reflection on John 1 and Matthew 2:1-12 by the Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

A Rector for the first time I found myself, within weeks of starting this position, faced with the events of 9/11. How was I, so new to this call, to have any idea what the congregation would need? It seemed that the only real response was to open up the church that night and offer a place for us to come and pray, sing, and be together. And so we did. In fact we started a series of ecumenical prayer vigils, held over the next year. In a simple Taize style of prayer and song, sometimes in our Episcopal Church, sometimes in the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or United Church of Christ church, our united communities gathered in solidarity and mutual comfort praying for a world that seemed to be falling apart.

About eighteen months after 9/11, just as the congregation and I were getting settled into comfortable relationships, the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire elected Gene Robinson as Bishop. While personally I celebrated this event my congregation was rocked. I was away on vacation when the General Convention consented to his election and authorized his consecration. That night I had a dream that when I returned to the church all of the parishioners had left and in their place was a crowd of curious spectators, come to see how we were going to handle this. In reality no one left, at least not right away. And a few new people did come, and stayed, relieved to have a church that claimed to affirm all people.

Over the next year I found myself invited into email discourse with a couple of parishioners who had strong thoughts on the issue of openly partnered gay Bishops. Most of these folks were accepting of partnered gays and lesbians in the general population, but ordaining them was another matter. The emails developed into a friendly debate. I used Richard Hooker and the founding principles of Anglicanism (Via Media), to support the ordination of gay and lesbian people. I no longer remember the sources my companions in debate used to argue in support of that one sentence in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, mostly because regardless of who was quoted or how the argument was framed, it did not persuade me to change my mind. Likewise my arguments, regardless of who I cited, failed to sway the minds of those who argued against the ordination of Gene Robinson and others.

It seems to me that, the ordination of women, changes in worship, language we use for God, and other movements of the Church, are matters of the heart for which intellectual debate is just an exercise in church history and biblical criticism. They are of the heart because they deal with how we know God, know ourselves, and know others. They are of the heart because they deal with how we understand God’s self-revelation throughout time. They are of the heart because they are matters of relationship. Relegating our discussions of these matters to intellectual discourse only, fueled by theoretical circumstances and relationships, enables us to maintain hard lines. But when we engage these matters through real lived relationships those hard lines blur. It is much more difficult to tell someone they are not worthy of serving God as an ordained person when that person has been a pastoral presence in my life. When, because of a mutual relationship, I have come to see them as God sees them and know how God is living in and through their lives.

Of course much of the head stuff had to do with how we understand and interpret scripture. Admittedly I fall into the camp of understanding scripture as a living breathing on-going revelation of God’s self. Like the Jewish art of Midrash, I appreciate turning scripture over and around and letting God invite us into new understandings. I like to wrestle with scripture – both with what the scholars tell us the scripture means and with what we as Christians living the text come to understand. It’s delightful when this is a process that allows the heart to inform the head and the head to inform the heart. When our engagement with and understanding of scripture is both an intellectual endeavor and a relationship building one.

As a parish priest I yearned for some way to enable us to move beyond the head and into the heart. To do this I invited us into dialogue. Some of our conversation took place around resources that we read. Some of our conversation took place in the context of facilitated talking and intentional listening, led by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. Some of our conversation took place with a workshop on “Human Sexuality in the Old Testament” led by a seminary Old Testament profession and “Development of Human Sexuality” led by a psychologist, professor, and Episcopal lay woman who was also a partnered lesbian.

All of these were good efforts. We learned a lot. But even still our conversation was lacking. We deepened our relationships with “one another” but not with others outside our community. I yearned for tool that would help us grow beyond ourselves.

Years later I think I have not only found that tool, but helped to create it, through the WordsMatter Language Project. You can learn more about it here. In particular I threw myself into writing a “theology of the conversation” – considering the way in which what we engaging in is relational, incarnational, and sacramental. It’s a theology that builds off of the prologue to the Gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2Word was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through Word, and without Word not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in Word was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1, adapted).

Some suggest that Logos, translated here as “Word” can also mean “Discourse” or “Story” or, perhaps, even “Conversation.” The Logos, by nature, invites relationship and sharing in and within creation. Our belief in the Trinity helps us understand how the Holy Spirit enables the Logos to be activated through time. Eastern theologians use the word "perichoresis," an interpenetrating dance-like relationship, when trying to describe the Holy Trinity. That divine community of interpenetrating love continues to go outward, so to speak, inviting all creation into the dance.

As Christians the Nicene Creed is historically the way we profess our faith in a triune God, a God of relationship. In the Nicene Creed we speak of one “catholic” church. But what does “catholic” mean? Simone Weil and Teilhard de Chardin suggest a broad definition of catholic: it must include the whole world. God’s household is the whole planet: it is composed of human beings living in interdependent relations with all other life-forms and earth process. A theology of this project is inherently sacramental and incarnational: Sacrament is traditionally defined as “an outward and visible expression of an inward and invisible grace.” The world is sacramental because it is an expression of God’s Self. The world is incarnational because we know the creative Word of God, which was with God before creation, is made manifest in the world in human flesh, in Jesus. Thus, the world is a sacramental incarnational reality.

Therefore the theologies that undergird this WordsMatter Language Project and conversation guide are “Relational,” “Sacramental” and “Incarnational”: God reveals God’s self in and through creation in ongoing dynamics. One way we Christians understand God’s self-revelation is through scripture. Other ways we encounter God are through human relationships and our interdependence with creation. From these encounters with God we form language: words, images, and symbols, to convey that experience.

The season of Epiphany is upon us. A season when we are invited to explore the ways in which God reveals God’s self to us, expanding our understanding of God, self, and others. May the manifestation of God and of God’s love poured out in human flesh, bless you this year. May your conversations be rich, may your heart burst open in love, and may your heart inform your head and your head inform your heart. May you be challenged by others and may they be challenged by you to grow more deeply in faith and understanding. May we share our stories and grow in trust, hope, and compassion, even as there will remain ways we disagree. May we be guided by our dreams, inspired by God, to bring forth God’s love. And may we fear not as we journey toward the star that guides us toward the living God.