Monday, June 22, 2009

The Church on the Other Side

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost: Mark 4:35-41

Let us go across to the other side.

As we have been reading along in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has been in Capernaum, on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee. It appears to have been his home base. Mark makes several references to his “home” being there.

Suddenly this morning Jesus wants to move on. “Let us go across to the other side.” His disciples probably would have raised their eyebrows. “The other side” was Gentile territory, the region of the Decapolis. It would have been highly unusual for the Jews who lived on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee to venture across to the western side.

This journey is the first sign in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus’ message is meant to be universal, not for Jews alone. Why else go there?

The going is rough, a storm is encountered and the boat is swamped. Even the fishermen among the disciples are frightened. Jesus is non-plussed. The disciples are beside themselves.

Do you not care that we are perishing?

Then comes the awesome moment when Jesus shouts, “Peace! Be still!” and nature obeys him.

When they arrive at the other side it is the territory of the Gerasenes. There were tombs near where they landed and “immediately,” Mark says, they are accosted by a man who is stark raving mad, who lived among the tombs, unable to be restrained.

Jesus orders the unclean spirit to come out of the man in the same way he ordered the sea to be still. The demon knows who Jesus is, calls him “Son of the Most High God.” “What is your name?” Jesus asks. “My name is Legion; for we are many,” comes the reply.

Legion begs to be cast into a nearby herd of swine. (You know for certain you are in Gentile territory here if there is a herd of swine). Jesus does just that and the herd rushes into the sea and is drowned. The townspeople are terrified by all this and beg Jesus to go away.

Meanwhile the tormented man is now in his right mind. He begs to go with Jesus, but Jesus sends him on his way to tell others of his good fortune and we are told that is what he does, much to the amazement of all.

Jesus then returned back across the sea to Capernaum.

This story is deep with symbolism and meanings. Among these, I think, they are a metaphor for the Church’s calling. We are called to “cross to the other side” into unfamiliar territory. We are, in fact, called to be “the Church on the other side.”

As the story tells us, this is not an easy calling. The storms along the way are mighty and hostile forces may greet us once we come ashore. We, too, may be asked to leave as if we don’t belong there.

I think this is an especially apt metaphor for where the Episcopal Church, including this parish, finds itself these days. We have become “the Church on the other side,” much to the horror of some of our own people, not to mention other Christians.

“The other side” these days means inclusive of gay and lesbian people. But we have been here before. We have crossed to the other side before and met with different players.

We crossed to the other side when we ordained an African American man named Absalom Jones, the first denomination in the still new United States to do so. We then lost our nerve and didn’t let him or his people vote in Convention for many years, but the side had been crossed and there was no turning back.

We crossed to the other side again later in the nineteenth century when we ordained a deaf man as a priest, Henry Winter Syle. For many it was an outrageous act to ordain someone who was “imperfect” of body. Again, we were the first denomination to do this.

And we crossed to the other side in the 20th century when we began to ordain women, although it cannot be said that we were anywhere near the first to do that among our Christian brothers and sisters. But we were first in the Anglican Communion, and then pushed further to the other side in ordaining the first woman to be a Bishop, Barbara Harris.

A lot of our own people chose not to cross this other side with us. The Church lost hundreds of thousands of people over women’s ordination and the concurrent change in The Book of Common Prayer.

Now we have gone again and crossed to the other side. This Diocese was a pioneer in the inclusion of lesbian and gay people in the 1970’s and 1980’s, although it has only been recently that a significant number of gay and lesbian clergy have served in the Diocese. And, of course, we all know of the ordination of Gene Robinson as a Bishop, which rocked the Anglican world in such a way that we will never be the same.

This being the Church on the other side is a part of our heritage. It is tradition with us, costly though it has been. And there is still more ways to go. What is the next “other side?” I hope and pray it is the other side of those among us who are poor. That will shake this upper and middle class church to its very foundations.

I know some of you are sick and tired of the Church talking about sexuality. Believe me, no more sick and tired than I am. But this is among our callings in these days. If some want to identify and dismiss us as “the gay church,” then so be it. There are worse things that we could be called. For our part we should keep on doing the things that we are doing, fighting for equality for lesbian and gay people, yes, but also serving those who live in poverty and raising up children to be good people, with a great ability to tolerate and celebrate difference as a gift from God.

I also know some of you have to talk about this with friends and acquaintances, even members of your own families. How can you have him as your priest? Isn’t it embarrassing to be seen as “the gay church?”

I suggest you tell them that even Jesus crossed to the other side to include the un-includable. And we believe we are called to be the Church on the other side, doing the same thing in our own day. It makes for a messy life, but it makes us depend on Jesus all the more, because only he can say to us “Peace! Be still!” and we know some measure of calm.

As for me I’m proud to be a member of the Church on the other side and I hope we will continue to cross that sea again and again until all of God’s children are included among the followers of Jesus. That will be a great day, the day of what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community.” Let us keep on inviting others to cross over with us, so we can all sing as Martin wanted us to sing, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last!” That’s the song they sing on the other side.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The New Way of Being

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost: Ezekiel 17:22-24, 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34 (Proper 6B)

We have just heard two short parables that Jesus tells us are about the Kingdom of God. It was a favorite metaphor of his—a political metaphor used to describe a spiritual reality. St. Paul, from whom we also just heard, does not use this metaphor. He speaks this morning instead of a “new creation.”

I want to suggest to you that these two metaphors are basically synonymous and can be used interchangeably: the Kingdom of God and the New Creation. And it is Paul’s metaphor that may ring truer for us in our day, that we can work with more easily.

More than fifty years ago, the great 20th century Protestant theologian Paul Tillich asserted that the New Creation, or “the New Being,” as he put it, was the central message and purpose of Christianity.[1]

Christianity is the message of the New Creation, the New Being, the New Reality which has appeared with the appearance of Jesus who for this reason, and just for this reason, is called the Christ. For the Christ, the Messiah, the selected and anointed one is He who brings the new state of things.[2]

What is this New Creation, this New Way of Being?

First of all we must say that in our existence it exists alongside what could be called the Old Creation, the Old Way of Being. The Old Way of Being is characterized by division, anxiety, fear, violence, greed, any of the myriad ways we separate ourselves from God and one another, and, indeed, separate ourselves from ourselves.

We are asked to be a part of the New Creation in the midst of the Old Creation. We know all too well this old way of being in our own lives. What Christianity asks of us is that we also participate in the New Creation inaugurated by Jesus.

In this regard the New Creation is like the Kingdom of God in the parables of Jesus this morning. It is like the mysterious and hidden seed that sprouts into growth and bears great fruit. Or it is like the sprig of which the prophet Ezekiel speaks this morning that God plants on a high mountain and it grows to be a great tree.

The New Way of Being in our world can be mysterious and hidden, and we must sometimes wait patiently for its growth, but we can do so in trust that grow it will.

But again, just what is this New Creation?

An important word we can use to describe this new reality is “transformation.” Where the New Creation is, is where transformation has occurred. The transformation is not something that we do, but that God does. Our job is not to create transformation but uncover it—to see transformation where it has already occurred.

Our job, in short, is to recognize and participate in what God has already done. And by participating we are participating in God’s ongoing work of transformation. God can use us in God’s work of transformation if we allow ourselves to be used.

Some examples of what I am talking about.

First, personal. The New Creation exists in my life every time I am able to say, “I am a child of God.” I am God’s beloved and with me God is well pleased. That is what I am in this new order of things. I am not who the world says that I am, whatever label that is. Nor am I who I often say I am in my anxiety and fear.

When I can say, “I am a child of God,” no matter what the circumstance of my life, there is the New Creation.

Second, relational. Paul speaks about this aspect this morning.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view…

When we are living this new way of being we are able to see through the labels and judgments we make on other people. We are able to see children of God, again, no matter what the circumstance.

This is not an easy thing all the time. Sometimes, frequently, people do not act like children of God. They live in the Old Creation and act out of it. We are given eyes to see, however, through that. We are able to see with God’s eyes. Here is a child of God even if she isn’t acting like a child of God, so the way I relate to others is affected. In the words of our Baptismal Covenant, I seek and serve Christ in all people, and respect everyone’s dignity.

To do that is transformational. It transforms the Old Creation into the New Creation.

Third, corporate. I want to apply this to our life as a parish. What difference does it make to look at ourselves as a New Creation? It means we see ourselves as a community of faith rather than as a collection of individuals. As a community of faith we have a calling. God wants us to do something, has a purpose for us.

Among other things this means that even when the circumstances of our life are difficult—when we, for instance, struggle financially or fail to grow as we would like, we remain a hopeful people. We continue to act out of abundance, not scarcity. We continue to expect that God is calling us to do God’s work, and we continue to do it.

We are entering a time when it will be our opportunity yet again to act out of this New Creation. This week it is likely that both our Vestry and that of St. Stephen’s will renew the covenant for cooperative ministry that we first entered into two years ago.

In a joint conversation, the Vestries clearly felt that the covenant has been a positive thing. There are challenges, but no deal breakers. We have begun to build a relationship with one another and some trust has begun to form.

It is time, we recognize, to move deeper, to go more deeply into what the original purpose of the covenant was, to support and expand ministry on the West Side of the city of Rochester.

Now when we say that we can have two reactions: Old Creation or New Creation. The Old Creation says things like, “We are already doing all that we can. We don’t have the resources to do more.” It also says, “I’m not sure I want them playing in my sandbox.”

The New Creation says, “We can’t do any more than we are doing alone, but we can do more together. God is calling us and God will enable us.” God will provide for what God wants to be done.

And God is calling us. A ministry of some sort to the children of St. Stephen’s neighborhood is being handed to us. Children in that neighborhood are showing up to church all on their own, without their parents. They’re even stopping by during the week whenever they see that somebody is there. Something is happening.

That in itself is a New Creation way of thinking: “something is happening.” God is doing something and we need to respond.

And we are beginning to. A team of people is being put together to do some dreaming about what might be possible, including to look at what others are doing elsewhere. If you want to be part of that dreaming, let me know. Dreaming is always a New Creation activity.

The challenge our faith always puts before us, be it on a personal, relational or corporate level, is the challenge to live in the New Creation. And it is a challenge. The Old Creation is everywhere, working in subtle and not so subtle ways to hold us back and hold us down. It is a struggle to be constantly throwing it off, but that is just what we are called to do.

We are called, as Paul says, to see no one and nothing any longer from a human point of view. We are called to see with eyes that transform the old into the new.

[1] “The New Being” in The New Being (Scribners, 1955), pp. 15-24.
[2] Ibid., p. 15.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Stand By Me God

Sermon preached on the Day of Pentecost: John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Who or what is the Holy Spirit?

Jesus’ word for the Spirit was parakletos, “the Paraclete.” It literally means “one who stands alongside of.” Over the centuries, Bible translators have used a variety of different words to try to translate parakletos: “Comforter,” “Counselor,” and, what we heard this morning, “Advocate.”

They’re all good words, but I like to say something like “The Stand By Me God.” The gift of Jesus is the Stand By Me God, the One who never leaves my side or yours, or ours together. We are never abandoned. Never alone.

This Stand By Me God, Jesus says, is “the Spirit of truth” who will guide us “into all the truth.” That’s important! The Stand By Me God is the true God. It is not as we have feared. God is not the “my way or the highway” God, behave yourselves or suffer the consequences, the angry, judgmental God of our fears. That is not the true God, the God who is revealed by Jesus. Jesus reveals the God of Solidarity with us, Emmanuel, God with us, God for us. This is the truth.

Which means, as Jesus says, the world is wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. He seems to speak in riddles here, but what he means is, I think, quite simple.

The popular conception is that sin is hated by God and righteousness is loved by God, because God is, above all, a God of judgment. Sinners go to hell, the righteous go to heaven in God’s great act of judgment.

Wrong, Jesus says. This is wrong about sin, Jesus says, “because they do not believe in me.” All along Jesus has been teaching not that God hates sinners, but that God loves them. Jesus is the embodiment of a God who cannot be separated from humankind, even by its own sin. If you can conceive of God and I being one, Jesus is saying, than you can conceive of God and sinners being one.

Which is not to say that Jesus was a sinner, but it is to say that Jesus was fully human, and in him humanity was fully united to God, and if Jesus unites humanity to God, then he unites sinful humanity to God, because there isn’t any other kind.

Jesus told a story (John 8:1-11) about a woman who was caught in adultery, a very bad thing, a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. Her punishment under the Law was death by stoning, and when Jesus came upon her a crowd was getting ready to do just that. Being a noted teacher, they asked him for his judgment in the case, assuming that he would agree with the Law. Instead he said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” They all went away and the woman was spared be the Stand By Me God.

The world is wrong about righteousness, Jesus says, “because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer.” Huh? What does he mean by that?

He means, I think, that because he is being eternally united to God, righteousness is now about relationship with him, not about your or my ability to be good. Does Jesus want us to be good? Of course he does. Is being good a qualification for being in relationship with Jesus? No, it is not.

A Pharisee named Nicodemus once came to Jesus under the cover of darkness (John 3:1-17). He was strangely drawn to him even though most of his friends were at best suspicious and at worst outright rejecting of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus sensed his fear and gave him a challenge: “you must be born from above.” Which is to say you must have a different way of relating to the world, the way of the Spirit, which blows where it wills. You must relate to the world through Jesus, who has come, he says, not to condemn the world but to save it.

And the world is wrong about judgment, Jesus says, “because the ruler of this world has [already] been condemned.” Judgment has already happened. Satan, the Accuser of humankind, has already fallen as Jesus has been lifted up and drawn all people to himself as humankind’s Advocate. Greater love has no one than this, Jesus says, but to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And he, we are told, calls us friends. We are no longer the accused, we are the advocated for by the Stand By Me God.

This is all hugely good news. How sad it is that the world still, by and large, does not know it, certainly does not understand it. This largely lies on our shoulders. We have not testified to the truth! We have not sufficiently accepted the Stand By Me God, to allow the truth of this good news to form our words and deeds.

The church—you and I—continue to allow the world to be wrong about God, because we keep getting it wrong ourselves. We keep believing that God is primarily a God of angry judgment, the great Accuser in the sky. And if we believe that then certainly the world around us isn’t going to argue with us.

Our challenge is to believe the truth, to live into the truth, that our God is the Stand By Me God. The “ruler of this world” is already condemned and both sin and righteousness alike are drowned in the overwhelming flood of God’s love.

The truth is that God loves us. Period. Full stop. No ifs, and, ors, buts or maybes. No fine print. God is head over heals, puppy dog, drooling idiot, ga-ga in love with us. That is the message. There is no other. Any other message is a lie, and we ought not to be afraid to call it a lie whenever we hear it.

God loves you, Jesus says. Lift up that love and the world will be drawn to it. Proclaim the Stand By Me God so that the world will be proved wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. Proclaim the Stand By Me God so that the world will know the truth and the truth will set it free.

Let us be loved people today. Let us be free people today. Let us give thanks for and lift up the Stand By Me God.