Friday, October 24, 2008

24 Pentecost

October 26, 2008

Matthew 22:34-46

One of my biggest problems has always been that I occasionally get myself in trouble with my big mouth. I think this is a common malady among people who go into clergy professions. Sometimes we get riled up, sometimes we see in ways others might not, the unfairness and inconsistencies in the world. Sometimes our egos get in the way and dominate our lives. I think, in many ways, this is simply an extension of following (or not following) the Gospel of Christ. Jesus, as we all know, got himself in deep with some of his comments over the course of his ministry. He did not remain quiet when he saw hypocrisy abound, nor did he think twice about coming to and defending the marginalized.

As a result of this view of the Gospels, I have ended up making some comments over the years that are not popular. As almost everyone here can remember, in the Summer of 2003, the Episcopal Church met for General Convention in Minneapolis. Because it was so close to home, I wanted to attend, but because I was loaded with work at the time, I was unable to attend.

As if to make up for my non-attendance, I kept close tabs on the proceedings. One of the most controversial, of course, was the approval of the Diocese of New Hampshire’s election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, to be their bishop. At the time, as a good progressive Anglo-Catholic, I thought quite honestly that such a decision was somewhat premature for our church and ultimately could be damaging in many ways, I also soon found myself voicing my support of New Hampshire’s decision, especially after listening to and witnessing much of the not-so-thinly veiled homophobia that seemed to swirl around the decision.

Some of my comments that summer were published on the front page of the faith section of the Fargo Forum. Others were recorded for Public Radio and the local radio stations. At the time, I felt my intentions were innocent; certainly it was not my goal to anger or frustrate. I simply spoke my mind on an issue I felt was important.

As a result of comments I made on radio—namely, a comment about how, 27 years after the ordination of women, it was my sincere hope that 27 years after the ordination of this Bishop of New Hampshire, his homosexuality would not be an issue in the Church any longer. My comment, overheard on Public Radio, warranted the following email from a fellow priest. He wrote:


…if I heard you correctly, may I lovingly say to you that I pray to God that your perception is very, very wrong. Women's ordination has nothing to do with sin or calling for the Church to bless and call holy that which God will not bless and does not call holy. In a clear and simple reading of Romans 1 and 1 Cor. 6.9ff, it is so very clear that God calls homosexuals/lesbians/transvestites unrighteous and they will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Jamie, the great tragedy of this past General Convention is that it has thrown the authority of Holy Scripture out the window--the very scriptures that identifies us all as Christians and now identifies you as a Priest of God's Church. If we throw out the texts that speak to the sinfulness of same sex sexual relationships then we can throw out the texts that say that you and I are the redeemed people of God; we can throw out the texts that substantiate your ordination to the Priesthood. We cannot and must not be engaged in scissors and past theology and scripture reading.

I pray God that in and through your ordination he will bless you with a great and uncompromising love for his most Holy Word Written and its authority for your life and the ministry he has called you to participate with him for his glory, the strengthening of his church, and the spreading of his kingdom.

Blessings in the name of Jesus,

Signed, “Bernard”+ (not his real name, of course)

I never did respond directly to this priest’s email and, for some time afterward, I scolded myself for not doing so. What I did do was respond not to him—the person—so much as to the person he became to me in the days following Convention. He became, in my mind, a personification of all of those people who throw scriptures around carelessly, using the Word of God as ammunition in a war of so-called holiness. Who I addressed was not so much the priest in out-state North Dakota, but the person I have been battling inside me for years, the person whose voice of condemnation I have heard in the back of my own head, the person whose voice sounds, at times, like my very own voice.

The response that I made to him was based squarely on the Gospel reading we hear this morning. So, here was the response I wrote and never sent:

Father Bernard,

As you might know, I was raised a Lutheran. For the first fifteen years of my life, I was raised with a deep and abiding love for Scriptures and it was those fifteen years that have heavily influenced so much of what I believe and hold true in my faith. It was also in those years that I first read the Scriptures and let them permeate into my whole self.

There is a wonderful icon of William Stringfellow, the great Episcopalian street lawyer, social activist and commentator, who has long been one of my heroes. The icon was painted by one of the best contemporary icon writers, William Hart McNichols. Entitled “William Stringfellow, Keeper of the Word,” it shows the Word, symbolized by a Bible, open to Deuteronomy 30.14 (“The Word is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it”). In the icon, the scriptures glow in the place where Bill Stringfellow’s heart should be, a luminous circle in the middle of his chest. For me, this is what happened to me in those years among the Lutherans—the words of the scriptures were burned into my heart. So, Bernard, to put it simply, your heartfelt and wonderful prayer for me for God to bless me “with a great and uncompromising love for his most holy written Word” was answered years ago. Our response to your petition should be a hearty “Amen!” There is no doubt as to my love for Scripture and its authority in my life. Which leads me to respond to your well-intentioned email.

As a Lutheran, I was taught many wonderful things about God and the scriptures, but one has come in very handy over the years of scripture study: if we have an issue with any part of scripture, whether it be from the Old Testament (which was the usual place we seemed to have issues—for example, the stoning of disobedient children in the book of Deuteronomy) or from the Epistles or from Revelation, we were taught to always return to the Gospels, for there we would find ultimate authority for whatever question we might have. “The words of Jesus—who is truly the Word of God—will be the answer,” the pastor of the church taught us one Sunday morning when I was about ten. And those words always stayed with me.

Your email concerned me greatly, as I believe you knew it would, especially when I read your choice of Scriptures (Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6)—which, despite your belief, can not be read clearly nor simply—and your choice of words (“We cannot and must not be engaged in scissors and past theology and scripture reading” and especially “it is so very clear that God calls homosexuals/lesbians/transvestites unrighteous and they will not inherit the kingdom of God”). To single out these scriptures and to use those self-same scissors you spoke against and to take them from their context to hold up as authoritative flies in the face of what I perceive to be true love of God’s “most holy written Word.”

This scriptures you quote, as all scriptures, as you very well know, only receive their authority from Christ, who called to Paul on the road to Damascus and who compelled Paul—who drove Paul—to preach the Gospel. Do I at any point disagree with what Paul is writing? Not at all. But I think you—and everyone who uses these scriptures to condemn—knows full well that these scriptures are not to be used as a condemnation of gay and lesbian people. That is not what these scriptures necessarily mean. And I do use the word necessarily because I do think Paul is condemning a practice—a practice incompatible with being a Christian. Namely, he saying that this what pagans do—they cheat on their wives, they have sex indiscriminately, they frequent temple prostates—both male and female. All of which I agree. It is not right, under any circumstances, to do any of those things as a Christian. To put in modern terms, it is not right for Christians to cheat on their spouses. And for gay Christians, it is not right to have multiple sexual partners. When we become Christians, Paul is saying, we need to put away our old ways. We need stop acting like the Pagans do.
Why? Because, using my good old tried and true Lutheran method of scripture reading, I simply returned to the Gospels. In fact, it was there in the Gospel of Matthew. In Chapter 22, a scripture with which I’m sure you are very familiar, a lawyer comes to Jesus and begins arguing with him. He asks Jesus “which commandment is the greatest of all?” You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”
Then Jesus made a wonderfully direct statement—a forthcoming answer to the lawyer’s question: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
Bernard, how much clearer can Jesus be?

Now, for a moment, let’s place this scripture from Mathew alongside the scripture from 1 Corinthians (which, by the way, condemns not only “sodomites” and “male prostitutes”—lesbians and transvestite are simply not mentioned anywhere in the scripture—but also drunkards, the greedy, etc). Which, Bernard, do you see as more liberating? If one loves God and loves his or her neighbor, isn’t that what truly brings us close to the Kingdom of God? Maybe Paul wouldn’t think so. Maybe you wouldn’t either. But certainly Jesus did.

Can one be a drunkard and still love God? I can tell you in all honesty, yes. I have known far too many in my life. They have been my friends, they have been family. They have been a very important part of my life. I have been able to see alcoholic behavior up close. I’ve seen narcissistic behavior—not unlike the behavior I find within many people suffering from a disease, whose world has closed in on them, who are, quite simply trapped. I’ve seen destructive behavior. I have seen behavior that is sad and painful.

I have known a lot of greedy people as well—people who have placed money or position or fame before everything else. I have known many “workaholics” and have known many people who simply want something better for themselves more than anything else in the world.

But is homosexuality quite the same, Bernard? Certainly there are people who are consumed with their sexuality (and certainly not by any means just gay people either). There are people (straight and gay alike) who use and abuse sex. There are many people of all orientations who have messed up views of what sex is.

But is that what we’re talking about? I have no doubt that is exactly what Paul is talking about.

The question is simple, Bernard: Can one love God with all of one’s heart and still be gay? My answer, in light of the Gospel, is YES. Emphatically, without a doubt—Yes!

So, Bernard, can scripture trump scripture? Certainly Jesus was able to trump Old Testament scriptures. We see it when we read his admonition to “turn the other cheek.” Likewise, I have no doubt that the words of Jesus trump scriptures that hadn’t been written yet. And I have no trouble believing that the words of Jesus trump the words of Paul—no matter how inspired Paul might have been.

I have found myself praying over both the scripture from Mark and the scripture from 1 Corinthians. As I prayed over the 1 Corinthians reading, for some reason I was not thinking about the homosexuals you say are condemned under that verse. Instead, I thought about my grandfathers, both of whom went to their graves as unrepentant alcoholics. I think of my uncle who died, alone and drunk, when his stomach literally burst from years of heavy drinking. I was thinking of the teenage friend of my niece who died when he drank too much and drove his car into a high line pole. I was not thinking of my gay friends and acquaintances, especially the ones who are either celibate or who are in committed loving relationships, the ones who come to the Episcopal Church because of their love for God and for others, the one who, like you, serve in the church, who hold scripture to be true, who have made the declaration at their ordination that they believe the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary for salvation. I have no doubt, in many cases, of those people’s unfailing love for God and for their brothers and sisters.

I have no intention of taking scissors to the scriptures. I took the vows I made at my ordination seriously and I continue to do. I do believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the Word of God and as such the idea of taking cutting and pasting them is abhorrent to me.

In all honesty, I agree with you to some extent. The scripture from 1 Corinthians 6 is meaningful to all of us. As Christians, we should strive not be drunkards, we should strive not to be greedy. We should not be male (or, for that case, female) prostitutes, nor should we be making use of prostitutes. We should be in committed relationships—relationships based on love for each other and love of God. I don’t want this scripture thrown out. But at the same time, I don’t want this scripture to drown out the words of Jesus who is offering all of us freedom and redemption, not condemnation.

God loves us, Bernard—you and me, sinners as we are, as well as the sodomite and the drunkard and the greedy and the prostitute. God loves us, Bernard, and God is commanding us to love one another as you want to be loved. How can one truly love God with all of one’s being, when one condemns and allows condemnation?

God loves us, Bernard. It is this love we find in the Gospel reading from Mark. Love—love God, love one another as you would be loved. You can’t do one without the other. It’s God’s love that prevails and trumps condemnation. It’s love—that holy love that comes from God—that ultimately wins out. Bernard, it is this love that I will hope and pray descends upon you like a cool summer shower.

In God’s love,

I regret the fact that I never sent the letter, but I also know that my letter would not have much of a difference to someone like Bernard. I do know that, on occasion, the rest of us, including I myself, need to remind ourselves where we stand with regard to scripture and these big issues.

This past weekend I gave a talk for at a Minister’s retreat in Richardton, ND on the issue of divorce and remarriage. Scripture is blatantly clear about this issue; in fact it is much clearer about divorce and remarriage than it is about homosexuality. The point for me is this: when did we struggle and somehow find consensus as a Church on the issue of divorce and remarriage? The fact is, we didn’t really. At some point, we simply saw it as a pastoral issue that we must deal with in love and understanding. My point is that this is exactly how we should deal with other issues, such as homosexuality. All that we should do, should always be in the spirit of loving our neighbor as ourselves.

In our collect for today, we pray to God to “increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command…”\
Let that not only be our prayer, but the basis of our lives of Christians. It should be what think and feel and believe with every beat of our heart. We should be striving for that wonderful combination of being instilled with the gifts of faith, hope and charity and that we should truly love what we are commanded by God to do: to love God and to love our neighbors as our selves.


The miles converge here.
The distances you covered
and the ones I traveled
have come together
in this dark place,
hidden in the long shadow
dusk makes when it crawls
toward night.
This is where we’ve come—
in this place
others have come for decades before us.

Near here lies buried a stewardess—
that’s what they were called
in 1963
when she and 42 others
fell from the sky
one stormy afternoon
outside Miami.
I think of her who—
let’s face it—
isn’t really here
at all, but somewhere else
we, in those moments of
fevered half-sleep
we ascend to in the night
long for and hope in
like naïve children
wishing for a happy ending.

And you and I also
here, and yet
we might as well
be in our distant places.
for I may sense you, but you—
you refuse to allow yourself
this easy pleasure.
You hope not in happy ending—
in that joy I hunt down
in long dark night like tonight.

I long for you!
just as I long for
the One who stands elusive
as the crescent moon—
thin as a thread of
silver embroidery—
which leans toward us
where everything converges.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Renewal of Ministry Service

Photos from the Renewal of Ministry service at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church on October 16, 2008

Saturday, October 4, 2008

21 Pentecost

October 5, 2008
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church

Matthew 21.33-46

A few weeks ago, I quoted Cynthia Bourgeault’s wonderful book, Wisdom Jesus. In that book, she said, parables are “supposed to challenge you; [they’re] supposed to make you angry—and [they’re] supposed to make you look at yourself more closely.”

Well, this morning we definitely have one of those parables that challenges us, that makes us a bit angry and that definitely forces us to look more closely at ourselves. Let’s face it, it’s a violent story we hear Jesus tells us today. These bad tenants are so devious they are willing to kill to get what they want. And in the end, their violence is turned back upon them.

It’s not a warm, fuzzy story that we can take with us and hold close to our hearts. The Church over the years has certainly struggled with this parable because it can be so challenging. At face value, the story can probably be pretty easily interpreted in this way: The Vineyard owner of course symbolic of God. The Vineyard owner’s son of Jesus. And the workers in the vineyard who kill the son are symbolic of the religious leaders who will kill Jesus.

From this view, we can see the story as a prediction of Jesus’ murder. But there is another interpretation of this story that isn’t so neat and clean and finely put-together. It is in fact an uncomfortable interpretation of this parable. As we hear it, we do find ourselves shaken a bit. It isn’t a story that we want to emulate. I HOPE none of us want to emulate it. But again, Jesus twists this story around for us. The ones we no doubt find ourselves relating to are not the Vineyard owner or the Vineyard owner’s son, but, in fact, the vineyard workers. We relate to them not because we have murderous intentions n our heart. Not because we inherently bad. But because we sometimes can be just as resolute. We sometimes will stop at nothing to get what we want. We are sometimes so full of zeal for something that we ride roughshod over others. And when we do so, we find ourselves not bringing the Kingdom of God about in our midst.

Zeal can be a good thing. We should be full of zeal for God and God’s Kingdom. We too should stop at nothing to gain the Kingdom of God. But zeal taken too far undoes the good we hoped to bring about.

The most frightening aspect of our Gospel story is the fact that Jesus tells us that the kingdom can be taken away from us. It can be given to others. Our zeal for the kingdom has a lot to do with what we gain and what we lose. Our zeal to make this kingdom a reality in our world is what makes the changes in this world.

At the same time, zeal can be a very slippery slope. It can also make us zealots. It can make us fanatics. And this world is too full of fanatics. This world is too full of people who have taken their religion so seriously that they have actually lost touch with it.

This story we hear from Jesus today tell teaches us a lesson about taking our zeal too far. If we become violent in our zeal, we need to expect violence in return. And certainly this is probably the most difficult part of this parable for most of us. For those of us who consider ourselves peace-loving, nonviolent Christians, we cringe when we hear stories of violence in the scriptures. But violence like the kind we hear in today’s parable, or anywhere else in scriptures should not just be thrown out because we find it uncomfortable. It should not be discarded as useless just because we are made uncomfortable by it. If we look at the kind of violence we find in the Scriptures and use it metaphorically, it could actually be quite useful for us. If we take some of those stories metaphorically, they actually speak to us on a deeper level.

A perfect example of this is the biblical concept of herem. I love preaching about herem, because in so many ways it still speaks to us in our own day. When I speak of herem, I am not talking about the Muslim concept of multiple wives. Herem is actually a Hebrew word for “holy slaughter.” And we find it in the book of Joshua.

In Joshua, we find the Israelites about to cross the Jordan River into the land promised to them by God. There is one huge problem however. The land of milk and honey, the land promised to them and their parents is already occupied. It is occupied by cities full of people. As the Israelites cross the Jordan, God commands them to do something we find frightening and abhorrent. God commands the Israelites to go in the land and to kill everything. God commands them to kill every man, woman, child and animal. In one translation of the story, God commands the Israelites to even drive their swords through the stomachs of pregnant women. It is horrendous and terrible to even think of a God commanding such a thing. But before we judge the story too harshly, we must first put it within its context.

The Israelites lived in a violent time—a time even more violent than our own. Violence was sometimes the only way one could precede. Violence was sometimes the only way one could succeed. Second of all, we need to remember that the Israelites were a spiritually weak people for the most part. Constantly, they strayed from God. Over and over again, despite the miracles, despite the fact that God spoke in a very clear and potent way to them, they strayed constantly into idolatry.

Now they were about to enter into a land full of idolatry. And when comparing the strictness of the God of the Israelites with the lackadaisical and sensual religion of the Canaanites, it was easy to see that the Israelites could very easily have been led astray.

At first the Israelites did as God commanded. They wrought herem upon the Canaanites with zeal. They slaughtered the men, the women, the children and the animals. But eventually, they disobeyed. Some of the men were led astray by the Canaanite women whom they spared and soon idolatry again plagued the Israelites.

On the surface, it is a horrible story. And if we were to take the story literally, then, we could argue that it is acceptable to wreak violence on those that don’t believe the way we do. Or, conversely, we could simply choose to ignore this aspect of Israel’s history and chalk it up as yet another example of what a cruel, vengeful God can do. But we can also do something else with stories such as this. We can use them for our own benefit.

Metaphorically, we can use the concept of herem. We can take the concept of herem and apply it not to people in our lives, but to all those other things that creep into our lives and lead us stray from God. For us, a metaphorical herem means not letting anything get between us and God. It means rooting out and destroying whatever comes between God and us. It means not allowing anything whatsoever to come between God and you.

It doesn’t mean violently killing people for us. But it does mean destroying the idols of our own life. It means even destroying the idols we created of ourselves if need be. And when we look at it from this perspective, herem can actually be a helpful thing in our own spiritual life.

The same can be said of some of the unpopular translation of the parable of the vineyard workers. Our zeal for the kingdom of God should drive us. It should move and motivate us. We should be empowered to bring the Kingdom into our midst. But it should not make us into the bad vineyard workers. It should not make into the chief priests and Pharisees who knew, full well, that they were the bad vineyard workers.

A story like this helps us to keep our zeal centered perfectly on God. It prevents us from becoming mindless zealots. What does it allow and commend is passion. What it does tell us that we should be excited for the Kingdom.

True zeal makes us uncomfortable, yes. It makes us restless. It frustrates us. True zeal energizes us and makes us want to work until we catch a glimpse of that Kingdom in our midst. This is what Jesus is telling us again and again. He is telling us in these parables that make us uncomfortable that the Kingdom of God isn’t just some sweet, cloud-filled place in the next world.

The Kingdom of God is right here, in our midst. And the foundation of that kingdom, the gateway of that Kingdom, the conduit of that Kingdom is always love. Love of God, love of neighbor, healthy love of self. This is what Jesus preached. As Cynthia Bourgeault writes elsewhere in her latest book, “Jesus’ path was…a radically unmanageable simplicity—nothing held back, nothing held onto.”

That is the path Jesus is leading us on. This is the path we walk as we follow after him. And it is a path on which we should be overjoyed to be walking.

So, follow this path of Jesus with true and holy zeal. So, so with love in your heart and in your actions. And as we do, we will echo the words we heard in Psalm 118, quoted in today’s Gospel:

“This is what the Lord’s doing; it is amazing in our eyes.”

3 Pentecost

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