Sunday, December 27, 2020

St. John the Divine: An Asexual Saint??


 
December 27, 2020

 John 21.19b-24

 + Today is the feast of St. John the Divine.

 St. John is believed to be the  author not only of the Gospel bearing his name, but three epistles we find in the New Testament, AND the book of Revelation.

 Now, I’ll be honest.  I had never really considered St. John much before.  

 Of course, I knew his story.  

 Jesus’ “beloved disciple,” the one who remained with him until the very end, standing at the foot of the cross, comforting Jesus’ mother.  

 I knew it was to him that Jesus commended his mother as he died—an important act in that time and place, wherein a woman without a male protector of some sort would have been a non-entity.

 But recently, I started wondering about who St. John the Divine actually was.  

 And my interest was especially piqued by the traditional view the Church has taken of him.  

 There is a very interesting view of St. John that the Church has traditionally taken.  

 We get a clue of this from the traditional antiphons for Morning Prayer on his feast day.

 The first antiphon for this feast day goes like this:

 “John, the apostle, an evangelist, a virgin chosen by the Lord, was loved by the Lord above all others.”

 And the second one is this:

 “To the virgin John, Christ, dying on the cross, entrusted his virgin mother.”

 Those antiphons no doubt jar us a bit.

 This is not language we use very often anymore.

 It seems so antiquated.

 That word, “virgin,” is an especially strange one outside of the usual Church context we have—the Blessed Virgin Mary.

 Of course the word “virgin” packs so much (mostly negative) meaning in our age.

 But we have to understand that in earlier generations, a virgin would often just be defined as someone who eschewed sex for whatever reasons.

 Or maybe even just a young, innocent person.

 In our own day this has taken on even deeper meaning.  

 “Virgin” as a term is often seen as archaic or even misogynistic, since it is almost used in reference to women.   

 It is a term that is now often synonymous with sexual repression and frigidity. 

 But in the Church that was not necessarily how the word was understood.

 At our Wednesday night masses at St. Stephen’s, we often commemorate one of the heroic “virgin-martyrs” of the Church.

 These were young women who refused to follow the accepted role they had in society; essentially to marry, or to be given in marriage to men they had no real desire for.

 For them, “virginity” was simply a symbol of their commitment to Jesus, and an eschewing of society and all that was expected of them as women.  

 As I have always seen then, these women were pretty radical and amazingly independent and fierce.

 For us, though, these words don’t quite have the same meaning.  

 Terms we use now are words like “chastity” and “celibacy.”

 Of course, we all know that in the Church celibacy (a refraining from sexual activity) is not seen as bad thing by any sense of the word.  

 It is seen as something that is commended and even encouraged among unmarried Christians.

 But celibacy can also be seen as restrictive and coercive.  

 In recent years, the Roman Catholic Church and other denominations have promoted celibacy as the only “viable” option for gay and lesbian Christians.  

 In this case, celibacy is not a choice, but rather something that is forced upon individuals because of their sexual orientations.

 As you know, I am of the firm conviction that celibacy should be a choice one makes on one’s self (hopefully through prayer and reflection) and not something that should be forced upon them.

 Celibacy can be seen as something positive.  

 In my own upbringing, both when I was a teenager longing to be a  Roman Catholic priest and even later in Anglo-Catholic tradition of the Episcopal Church, celibacy was as an important aspect for ordained ministry.

 For example, in 1999, when I first went before Bishop Andy Fairfield, then-Bishop of North Dakota, who was known for his adamant opposition to homosexuality in the Church, he made very clear to me that, as an unmarried aspirant for ordination, I was to remain celibate.

 He never asked if I was gay or straight.  

 He just said this was the way it was if I wanted to be ordained in the diocese.

 “No sex outside of marriage” (which was, of course, then recognized in the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota as only between a man and a woman.)

 Despite all the political aspects of that connotation, I actually had no issue with remaining celibate so I very willingly went along with the rule of the day.

 After all, for my entire teenage and adult life, I always said (only half-jokingly) that I was a “natural celibate.”

 (More on all of that in moment)

 But I do need to repeat something: despite my own “natural celibacy,” I want to be clear that celibacy is, by definition, a choice one makes to refrain from sex.  

 And there have been many great leaders in the Church who have chosen this route.

 Who knows?

 Possibly St. John the Divine was celibate.  

 We’re pretty certain St. Paul the Apostle was celibate.

 However, over the last 20 years or so, a movement has been at work especially in the United States.  

 Essentially beginning in about 2000 with a young man named David Jay, the so-called Asexual movement has grown and flourished among the small percentage of people who identify as Asexual.

 Now for many of us, the term “asexual” is a strange one.

 The first time I heard it, I thought of asexual reproduction.

 I thought of something essentially meaning genderless. However, asexuality,


according to the website for the online community David Jay founded, The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (or AVEN), is defined as such:

 “An asexual person does not experience sexual attraction – they are not drawn to people sexually and do not desire to act upon attraction to others in a sexual way. Unlike celibacy, which is a choice to abstain from sexual activity, asexuality is an intrinsic part of who we are, just like other sexual orientations. Asexuality does not make our lives any worse or better; we just face a different set of needs and challenges than most sexual people do. There is considerable diversity among the asexual community in the needs and experiences often associated with sexuality including relationships, attraction, and arousal.”

                                     (https://www.asexuality.org/?q=overview.html)

 


So, unlike celibacy, asexuality is not a choice.

 It is a sexual orientation, just as straight or gay or bi or Trans are seen as sexual orientations.  

 Unlike celibacy, it is not something one chooses in one’s life.  One simply is.  

 There are of course many layers and nuances to what it means to be asexual, but these are basics.

 Which brings us back to my own story.

 Over the last few years or so, I too have found myself learning more and more about asexuality and have realized, after much personal struggle, that I too am asexual.  

 Back in my teenage years, the Priesthood and its promise of celibacy was a wonderful relief for me from all the peer pressure to date and form romantic relationships.  

 The fact is that I never had any desire to date be in any kind of romantic relationship with anyone.

 Later, with Bishop Andy and even later with Bishop’s Andy’s successor Bishop Michael Smith, in which celibacy for unmarried clergy was the norm, it was the easiest way for me to explain to people why I didn’t date and why I had no interest in being in a relationship.  

 Only after I studied and learned about asexuality and how distinct it is from celibacy, was I fully able to recognize that my “natural celibacy” was, in fact, asexuality.  

 And when I realized that I was asexual, I have to say I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders.  

 The only way to describe how right it felt was to say that it felt like putting on a comfortable sweater that fits just right.

 So, for me, when I read about St. John, this beloved disciple of Jesus, I am able to


see in him a kind of patron saint of asexual (or “Ace” as the popular term now used) people like myself.  

 It’s important to stress that being asexual does not mean that an Ace person cannot feel real intimacy with another person.

 Which brings us back to dear St. John.  

 As we have established, yes, St. John was probably celibate.

 But could St. John have been asexual?  

 I think that is very much a real possibility.

 I also think it is a very real possibility that St. Paul himself was probably asexual as well.

 Celibacy in Judaism at that time, as it is even now, is something alien to a culture and religion that is primed to be “fruitful and multiply” so that the religion and race can flourish.

 So, for a Jewish male to remain single was unique, to say the least

 So, no doubt, it was strange for those early Christians to hear St. Paul  himself write in his First Letter to Corinthians:

 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.”

 And some people, especially myself, could definitely interpret Jesus’ statement in Matthew Chapter 19 as something very meaningful to their own struggle:

 “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”

 For me, personally I have pondered this scripture many times since I came to the realization that I am asexual.

 I definitely see it anew through this new lens.

 In fact, when I was discussing this all with my friend Jordan on Christmas day, he made the observation that he believed Jesus himself may have been asexual.

 I have not had time to ponder or process that, but it did open my eyes in a new way to who Jesus was on this earth.

 But I will definitely be wrestling with this idea in the future no doubt.  

 For now, seeing scripture through this new lens has opened it up to me in so many ways.  

 In fact, I see the whole concept of eunuchs in scripture anew as I look it as an asexual person.

 Similar to our understanding of the term “virgin” in scripture, so we can have a new understanding of eunuchs in scripture as well.

 Eunuchs are not necessarily seen as just men who were physically castrated (which was very much a reality in Jesus’ world).

 Eunuchs can also be seen as a person who simply not interested ins ex for whatever reasons.

 Our new understanding of eunuchs in scripture helps us to realize that eunuchs were definitely one of the first recognized sexual minorities.

 And in this way, asexual people, as well as a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, also relate, no doubt.

 But this scripture from Matthew speaks loudly to me and no doubt to other Ace people.

 For us, we can hear Jesus saying to us, Some are without sexual desire, some are simply made that way, and some renounce sex for the Kingdom of heaven.

 What many asexual people hear in this scripture is an affirmation of who we are.

 And we hear from Jesus himself that we are not broken, that there is not something inherently wrong with us, as so many sexual people have felt.

 As I myself so many times thought.

 Which brings us back once again to St. John.

 I have also found myself pondering over that passage in today’s reading from St. John’s Gospel:

 “Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper…”

 The beauty of this intimate action of St. John’s is that it is an action we ourselves should be imitating.

 


St Bonaventure said, “There [in that moment] our Lord fed [St. John] on the mysteries of his Divine wisdom, abundantly, uniquely, wholesomely, profitably.”

 We, like St. John, should also be fed abundantly, uniquely, wholesomely, and profitably.

 We should find our consolation, our joy, our absolutely gladness in that place, reclining alongside Jesus.

 And more than just reclining.

 We too should find ourselves in that place of complete trust.

 We too should lay our heads—full of our sorrows, our troubles, our pains, our angers, our fears—we should lay our muddled heads against the breast of Jesus that contains his love-filled Heart.

 There, in that place so near to the source of his love, acceptance and affection, we should find our shelter, our refreshment, the place we have longed to be spiritually and actually.

 All of us can experience this love, no matter who we are.

 That is the truly liberating aspect of Jesus’ love for us.

 Each of us is loved just as John is loved.

 Each of us is the “beloved one” of Jesus, no matter if we are asexual, straight, gay, trans, non-binary or whatever.

 That love he feels for us is just as intimate and beautiful and life-altering as it was for John.

 St. John truly is the model saint for all of us, not just the 1% of the population who are asexual.

 Like him, we too should strive to be the one Jesus loves.

 That love should be the only goal in our lives.

 Let us pray.

 Holy God, you blessed your Son’s life on this earth with loved ones who cared for him; bless us also with friends who love us and care for us. And help us to embrace who we are in this world—whether as gay or straight, bisexual, transgender or asexual—so that we may bless you and this world in which we live with our authentic selves; and in doing so may be see ourselves as beloved in your sight; in the name of Jesus our Beloved savior, on whose breast we long to lay our heads. Amen.

 

 

St. Stephen

 


December 26, 2015

 + I know.

 You’re wondering, why are we commemorating St. Stephen today?

 His feast day was yesterday, after all.

 It’s the First Sunday after Christmas.

 Usually on this Sunday, we hear the Gospel reading from the first chapter of John, which, as you may know, I love!!

 Usually this Sunday is a white Sunday—all the white paraments are usually up for this Sunday.

 But, today, everything’s red.

 Well, sometimes we can transfer feasts like this, especially when it’s a feast that honors a parish’s patron saint.

 So, we are celebrating St. Stephen for the very important reason that he is our patron saint of course.

 So, we transferred his feast from yesterday so we could all enjoy St. Stephen.

 After all, we very proudly bear his name.

 I’ll get into all of that in a moment.

 But, there’s another important reason we’re commemorating him today.

 We have transferred his feast from yesterday because I really do think it’s important to remind ourselves how important St. Stephen is to all of us.

 And…

 I would like to, at this time, officially open our 65th year.

 I christen it, shall we say?

 Today, we officially begin our 65th year as a congregation.

 This is something very important to commemorate.

 65 years of amazing ministry in the Diocese of North Dakota.

 Those first founders of church were a smart bunch.

 They were a prophetic bunch.

 Naming our church after St. Stephen was a smart thing.

 Of course, the reason they came to this name was because St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Casselton, ND had just closed in 1953.

 And we inherited many of their furnishings.

 But St. Stephen was a great saint for us to have as our patron.

 In the Orthodox and Roman traditions of the Church and even in our own Anglo-Catholic tradition, the patron saint of a church is viewed as more than just a namesake.

 They are seen as special guardians of that parish. 

 And so, it is especially wonderful to celebrate a saint like St. Stephen, who is our guardian and who is, no doubt, present among us this morning, with that whole communion of saints, who is always present with us at worship.

 St. Stephen, of course, was the proto-martyr of the Church

 “Proto” is the important word here.

 Proto means, essentially, first.

 He was the first martyr of the Church.

 He was the first one to die for his open proclamation of  Christ.

 He also is considered a proto deacon in the church.

 That is important because of course this past year we celebrated our own proto-deacon.

 This past year, we celebrated the ordination of our first deacon in our congregation, Deacon John.

 And today he is wearing the red dalmatic in honor of St. Stephen.

 The dalmatic is a vestment that deacons wear.

 And often when we see paintings or icons of St. Stephen, he too is wearing a dalmatic, though he probably never actually wore one in real life

 St. Stephen is a special patron saint of deacons—and of all people who share a ministry of servitude to others.

 But St. Stephen is meaningful in other ways too.

 One of the things I really appreciate about him is the clear vision he gives us of heaven and what awaits us afterward.

 For most of us, heaven seems like a vague kind of thing—some cloudy other-world that awaits in the far reaches of existence.

 But through St. Stephen’s eyes, we have a very clear vision of what it is like.

 What does he see there?

 He sees the throne of God in majesty.

 And seated in honor and majesty at the right hand of God is Jesus.

 We see this same vision in the writings of the saint who’s actual feast day is today, St. John the Evangelist or St. John the Beloved.

 In his book of Revelation, he too gives us a very clear image of the same throne, with God seated there, and the Jesus as the Lamb at God’s right hand.

 I love that imagery.

 I love it because it all makes sense.

 And I love it because I too can see it.

 So, dear St. Stephen is more than just a proto-martyr and a patron of deacons.

 He is also a visionary and prophet.

 What better saint can we claim as our patron that St. Stephen?

 He was the first to do many things. 

 Just like we, as a congregation, have been the first in doing many things.

 St. Stephen, in his stance on a few issues, was not popular always obviously.

 There is a reason they dragged him out and stoned him.

 Well, neither are our opinions and our stances on some issues.

 The stance we have made for full and equal inclusion of women and LGBTQ+ people has been VITAL for us.

 And making the stance we have in the past and the reaction we have received from others, let me tell you, we can relate to St. Stephen.

 So, again, talk about a perfect saint for us.

 So it’s appropriate that this congregation that has been the first to do many things, is named after St. Stephen.

 When we look back at our 65 year history, just think for a moment about all those people who came through the doors of this church, have sat in these pews.

 Think about how many of those people who have come here after being hurt by the Church.

 Think about how many have come here who were frustrated with the Church.

 And more often than not, their relationship with God has suffered for it. 

 But have came here searching.

 Searching for true religion.

 Searching for a welcoming, open and inclusive community.

 I can say that I was one of those people.

 I came to St. Stephen’s in 2008 as a new but very Church-weary priest.

 I had already experienced some of the worst the Church can do to people.

 And I can say that if it hadn’t been for St. Stephen’s—if it hadn’t been for all of you—I’m not sure that I still be in the Church.

 I thank you all for that.  

 For me, St. Stephen’s personifies in many ways, what true religion is.

 The Church should be like a dinner to which everyone is invited. 

 And St. Stephen’s has always been the place that knows this one blunt fact: The only thing there is no room for in true religion is for those who cannot love each other.

 St. Stephen’s is a place very much like a family.

 We don’t always choose the people God has brought into our lives, but we always—ALWAYS—have to love them.

 So what is true religion?

 True religion begins and ends with love.

 We must love one another as God loves us.

 True religion begins with the realization that, first and foremost, God loves each and every one of us intimately.

 When we can look at that person who drives us crazy and see in that person, someone God loves wholly and completely, then our relationship with that person changes.

 We too are compelled to love that person as well. 

 Love is the beginning and end of true religion. 

 Certainly, St. Stephen’s has always been a place of love. 

 Love has never been a stranger here.

 Love has been offered to God not only on this altar, but among the pews and in the undercroft and in the entryway and in the parking lot. 

 And most importantly in the lives of our members out in the larger world.

 That love that God has commanded us to share has went out from here into all the world.

 We who are gathered here have been touched in one way or the other by the love that has emanated from this place and these people.

 We are the fortunate ones—the ones who have been transformed and changed by this love.

 We are the lucky ones who have—through our experiences at St. Stephen’s—been able to get a glimpse of true religion.

But our job now is not to cherish it and hold it close to our hearts.

Our job now is to turn around and to share this love with others, even isolated as we are by the pandemic.

Our job is take this love and reflect it for everyone to see.

So, in a very real sense, we, at St. Stephen’s, are doing what that first St. Stephen did. 

We have set the standard. 

We have embodied who and what St. Stephen the Martyr stood for.

Even when it was not popular.

Even when people felt it wasn’t time.

Even when people said, “wait. There’s no rush. Why do this now?”

We have stood up again and again for what we have felt is our mission to accept all people in love.

We have journeyed out at times into uncharted territory.

And most importantly, we have, by our love, by our compassion, by our acceptance of all, been a reflection of what the Church—capital C—is truly capable of.

This is how we begin our 65th year.

We begin it by doing what we have always done.

We do it as St. Stephen’s did it—with our eyes firmly set on God, on Christ at God’s right hand, with our lips singing and praying, with our head held high, with love in heart, even if stones and rocks are falling around us.

We do so affirmed in our many ministries.

We do so, thankful for the ordained ministries of our new deacon who serves here.

We do so thankful or our continued place in the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota and in the Episcopal Church.

We do so thankful for our uniquely Anglo-Catholic expression of Anglicanism here in Fargo and North Dakota.

It is an amazing time to be at St. Stephen’s, even if we’re not really AT St. Stephen’s right now.

Those poor founders of our church would only be amazed at what this congregation they envisioned in 1956 would one day be.

As we begin this 65th year, let us do with gratitude to God and one another in our hearts.

Let us shake off the negativity and those nagging doubts that have plagued us.

And let us, like St. Stephen, be strong and firm in our faith in God and our convictions of serving others in love.

And may our God—that source of all love, that author and giver of all good things—continue to bless us with love and goodness.

May we continue to flourish and grow. 

And may we continue to venture bravely forward in  all that we continue to do here among us and throughout the world. 

Let us pray.

Holy and gracious God, when St. Stephen looked up, he saw you, seated in glory and majesty on your throne, with Jesus you Son seated at your right hand; we are grateful for Stephen and the vision he gives us of what awaits us in your Kingdom. Help us to embody St. Stephen’s spirit of strength and vision as we do the ministry you call us to do in this world, and let us, like him, come to that heavenly Kingdom that you have allowed us to see today. We ask this in Jesus’ holy Name. Amen.

 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas Eve


 December 24, 2020

 + I hope this doesn’t come as a huge surprise to many of you, but I am a HUGE church nerd.

 Now, you may think: of course he is.

 He’s a priest.

 He should be a church a nerd.

 Ah…you’d be surprise how many priests and pastors I know who are not church nerds.

 For some priests, this is just another job.

 But not for me.

 I love being a priest.

 I love being in church.

 I spend most of my day doing church things, literally.

 Literally, from the moment I get up in the morning to the moment I got bed at night, I am usually doing one sort of church thing or another.

 Because I actually love doing it.

 Even when I don’t love doing it.

 If that makes sense.

 And, while some clergy may complain about the fact that they have to work on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I definitely do not complain about such things.

 I LOVE celebrating this Christmas Eve Mass, even now, in this pandemic, when these pews, which are normally packed full on Christmas Eve are now empty.

 Actually, I don’t like that aspect of it at all.

 Even now, I love this Mass.

 (I also really love celebrating the Christmas Day Mass tomorrow)

 Because, let’s face it:  here it is.

 This is what it’s all about.

 This is why we celebrate.

 This is why we do what we do at Christmas.

 This is what we hope for.

 And we are celebrating, even though we’re not “really” together.

 It might be dark right now—it might not really feel like Christmas—but here, tonight, we celebrate Light. 

And that is what I really love about this night!

 We celebrate Jesus, who is God’s Light that has come to us wherever we might be in our lives.

 We celebrate Jesus who breaks through into our darkness, in the darkness we might have in our own lives.  

 We celebrate the Light of Christ that has come to us when we’ve been sad or frustrated or fearful.

 And as it does, no doubt most of us are feeling two emotions tonight—the two emotions Christmas is all about: hope and joy.

 Hope—in our belief that God has sent Jesus to us as a glorious and wonderful gift.

 Hope that what divides us from each other right now is only a temporary things.

 Hope that next year, we will all be together, here, in these pews, celebrating this Light in person with each other again.

 And Joy—at the realization of that reality.

 And we celebrate the mystery of it too.

 We will never fully understand how or why God in Jesus has come to us as this little child in a dark stable in the Middle East, but it has happened and, because it happened, we are…different.

 We are better as a result of it.

 God has reached out to us.

 God—this God who truly does love us, who truly does know us, who truly does care for us---has reached out to us.

 Just think about that for a moment.

 God loves us enough to actually reach out to us.

 And by doing so, we know tonight—without a doubt—that we are loved, we are accepted, we are truly known by our God.

 Knowing that, what do we feel?

 Hope!

 And joy!

 Because of Jesus, we know that God truly does know us, love us, accept us, and because of Christ’s presence with us, our lives are different because of what happened that evening when Jesus came to us as a sign of that love and acceptance.

 Yes, I know.

 This past year we may have known fear, we have known dread, we have feared for our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

 It has been scary.

 But tonight, as we gaze upon the face of the Child Jesus we are reminded that the same God who sent Jesus is the same God that is so close and so near, and because of that, everything we feared and dreaded is not so terrible.  

 This Child calms out fears.

 This Child drives away our anxieties.

 This Child gives us purpose again to go on.

 This Child reminds us that God is in control and everything is going to be all right.

 When we look at it from that perspective, suddenly we find our emotions heightened.

 We find that our joy is a joy like few other joys we’ve had.

 We find that our hope is more tangible—more real—than anything we have ever hoped in before.

 And that is what we are celebrating this evening.

 Our true hope and true joy is not in brightly colored lights and a pile of presents until a decorated tree.

 Our true hope and joy is not found in the malls or the stores.

 Our true hope and joy does not come to us with things that will, a week from now, be a fading memory.

 Our hope and joy is in a God who has sent us our Savior, our Messiah in the person of this seemingly vulnerable Baby whose very presence causes us to leap up with joy at his very presence.

 Our hope and joy is in that almighty and incredible God who would come to us, not on some celestial cloud with a sword in his hand and armies of angels flying about him.

 Our hope and joy is in a God who reaches out to us right now, where we are, who sends us our Redeemer, our Messiah in this innocent child, born to a humble teenager.

 Our hope and joy is in a God who gives us love in very concrete terms—love that has a face like our face and flesh like our flesh—a God who allows love to be  born, like we are born.

 Our hope and joy is in a God who comes to us  and accepts us and loves us for who we are and what we are—a God who does not leave us alone in our hurts and our pains.

 God loves us.

 God knows each of us by name.

 Each and every single one of us.  

 We are each precious and loved by our God.

 That is what this night and this season of Christmas is all about.

 This is the real reason why we are joyful and hopeful on this beautiful night.

 This is why we are feeling within us a strange sense of longing.

 God is here.

 God is in our midst.

 God is so near, our very bodies and souls are rejoicing.

 So, let greet our God tonight with all that we have within us.

 Let reach out to the God who is reaching out to us.

 Let us welcome the Christ Child with true hope and true joy.

 And let us welcome this holy Child into the shelter of our hearts, so that we can share God with others.

 And let us rejoice in the fact that although it might seem dark and lonely right now, our God—the God of hope and love—will always restore us and fill us again with true hope and true love.

 Let us pray.

 Holy God, this glorious night is full of your glory, full of your joy. We truly rejoice tonight in the birth of Jesus. Fill us all with the Light you have brought us into the world on this holy night. Let it burn brightly within us. And may we reflect this joy in all we do and say. We ask this in Jesus’ holy name. Amen.