Monday, June 22, 2015

Midday Sermon for June 22, 2015

I don't usually write manuscripts for my midday homilies at Grace Cathedral, but to get my words closer to where they needed to be, I did today. Here it is.

Matthew 5.1-7

For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?

Very often part of this gospel passage is quoted as a way to encourage having grace. I support that.

Sometimes this passage is quoted as a way for not having to do an evaluation, a measuring of actions compared to values. I do not in the least support that.

Note that Jesus doesn’t only say not to judge. No, he says to first and foremost start by judging ourselves, to wonder what we’re doing well and what we’re failing to do.

By now we’ve probably already heard about the white supremacist, terrorist massacre that took place in an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC last week.

By now we may’ve already heard a sermon about the event, read some articles about it.

By now we may be wish that we could just move on, could get over it, could stop talking about it.

Do we, beloved, notice the logs in our own eyes?

On June 18, the day after the murders, Charles Pierce, writing for Esquire said,

“We should speak of it often. We should speak of it loudly. We should speak of it as terrorism, which is what it was…It is not an isolated incident, not if you consider history as something alive…Think about what happened. Think about why it happened. Talk about what happened. Talk about why it happened…The country must resist the temptation present in anesthetic innocence…

“If people do not want to speak of it, or think about it, it’s because they do not want to follow the story where it inevitably leads. It’s because hey do not want to follow this crime all the way back to the mother of all American crimes, the one that Denmark Vesey gave his life to avenge [slavery].”

We may be tempted to say — as I know many close friends and family are — “I didn’t own slaves. I had nothing to do with that,” but that is to ignore the status quo of how black people are treated in the United States.

On twitter, @LeftSentThis offers this list of rules for Black people: No hoodies. No toy guns. No breathing. No listening to music at a gas station. No asking for help after a car accident. No praying at church.

Those are all actions and behaviors that have led to Black people being killed by agents of the state, vigilantes, and people who just don’t like Black people. We are here, gathered around Word and Sacrament, not fearing for our lives because of the color of our skin. Dylan Roof violated the safe place of Church, a specific church that inspired and gave hope to Black people freed from slavery and still under the thumb of white oppressors in the 19th Century.

Jesus the Christ directs us to not judge others for we will be judged according to the standard we use — and then he challenges us to use a standard for ourselves. As Episcopalians we have vowed to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. Today, every day, and especially in light of one more attack against Black people based on the color of their skins.

Jesus is nudging, pushing, shouting for me to ask myself, “Why have I marched at Pride, and picketed at immigration court, but only tweeted that black lives matter? Why haven’t I taken to the streets for my sisters and brothers with darker skin?”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

But our silences and our wonderings and our inactions are not the end of our stories beloved. I exhort you, as Paul exhorted those he wrote to not lose heart or feel this is too much, that we cannot make a difference individually, that death — particularly senseless deaths of Black people — is the status quo, to never change.

We have come through Christ’s death, and we have been joined to his resurrection in the font where we promised not only to strive for justice and peace, but to continue in the breaking of the bread. We came through the water and come to the table not only for solace, but also for strength; not just for renewal, but for pardon of our sin.

When we leave this place, we’ll go out to do the work we’ve been given to do, and we’ve got a lot of work to do. God will not hold us guiltless for our silence and inaction, but the Spirit empowers us to do the work that Jesus the Christ calls us to do.

Let us not judge others, lest we be judged, but let us look for the planks in our own eyes, our own actions and inactions that blind us.


Friday, February 13, 2015

Ground rules for asking gay Christian acquaintances about their faith when you don't agree with them — Part 1

Over the last six months I have gotten almost as many emails / Facebook messages (at least it feels like it — it's at least four) from someone from whom I haven't heard in up to ten years asking about Christianity and queerness. To be fair, two of these were from advocates / allies who needed language they hadn't worked out for themselves. However, this is an alarming message to receive from someone — be they friend or "foe" (used loosely). In the most recent reply I laid down some ground rules, and I'd like to share those over a blog series with anyone who wants to read it.

Rule 1: Don't ask.

As a general rule, don't ask someone you haven't heard from in years how they understand their lives relative to the importance of Scripture. It is a height of hubris to expect someone to essentially have to defend themselves to you when because of time, space, or a variety of different life factors your relationship has deteriorated. More likely than not, despite how close you once may have been, they are now somebody that you used to know.

It is completely unfair to ask an essential stranger / nominal acquaintance about their lived experience of an intimate part of their life, particularly if you're speaking of it as "an issue," while knowing almost nothing about who they are now. You may likely changed much in time since you know them, and they likely have too. In my context — having from come from Alabama — accepting my queerness was very difficult. Being asked "How do you justify homosexuality and the Bible?" feels like an attack even if it isn't one (see Rule 2 in another entry for more on that).

If you're interested in their perspective, reconnect. Get to know them as a real human, not that person you used to know who is gay now. While having a personal connection to an area with which you are unfamiliar might be helpful to you, a personal connection requires a deeper relationship than an out of the blue Facebook message. It can feel awesome to get a message from an old acquaintance that starts "Hey, I need your help," and it can be nerve wracking to get one that says "I know you haven't heard from me in a long time..."

If you really want to know and don't feel like building a relationship that acknowledges your old acquaintance as more than who they have sex with or are married to, try googling Gay and Christian. The results giving you the information you might want would surprise you. That person you used to know who is gay now may be the only person who comes to mind of queer Christians for you, but they aren't the only queer Christian. There's even a whole network of them.

I have actually written some follow-up rules because some people will ignore rule one. Or maybe they don't know that it exists. I — because of who I am — have replied to all of these emails. None of them has been explicitly abusive, and I work to assume goodwill. However, I don't owe strangers basically strangers an explanation about one aspect of my life without much qualification about anything else. An amalgamation of my replies will be posted following the ground rule.

What ground rules do you think applies to this kind of situation?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Normal Enough

The following letter was emailed to the full Board of Trustees one hour ago.

Dear Trustees of General Seminary,

Yesterday I sent Bishop Sisk my two recent blog entries on what are trying times at General Seminary, where I was formed for the priesthood and given the freedom to work to build skills that enable me to excel at my first calling as communications officer for the Diocese of California. The links to the blog entries are here and here.

When I first read the faculty's letter of September 17 on Monday (which though heavily redacted by the seminary was released at least a day beforehand in full by the faculty) I was deeply troubled particularly by their claims of Dean Dunkle's sexist, racist, and homophobic comments — and the claim that he has desired the seminary to emphasize "normal people." My first reading of that comment made me think of a classmate who has planted a worshipping community, is a priest, and whose hair has never since I've known her been a naturally occurring hair color. She's normal enough for her manner of life to be found suitable to exercise the ministry of a priest, but wonder if she'd be considered normal enough to get Dean Dunkle's attention.

I am writing to you today not in anger; I've moved past some of that and it's what delayed my writing. I write in great sadness today seeing the faculty's claim — verified by a third party — of Dean Dunkle saying that he didn't want General to be known as the gay seminary. 1/3 of my class was gay men, but that leaves 2/3 who weren't. While the concentration may have been higher than some would have liked I would not be where I am if not for how General trained me.

I went to General Seminary from the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, not answering questions to my bishop or Commission on Ministry that hadn't been asked. As far as anyone in Alabama / Florida knew I was single (though probably no one assumed I was straight). I came to General terrified of my bishop "finding out" and constantly looking over my shoulder. Because of the support of my classmates and faculty I moved from a place to fear to not being afraid, knowing that God was going before me. My counsel at General and back home encouraged me in this path. I do not regret taking it.

I am speaking gingerly about the faculty's claims because for the time being they are that — however I know the faculty. I have only met Dean Dunkle on one occasion, and it was as he chatted through the distribution of the Eucharistic Elements at a friend's ordination, unaware or uncaring that some people around him might consider that a time for prayer, quiet, and respect — not for networking and catching up.

The faculty who have been removed from their posts are people I know and cherish deeply, regardless of how much I enjoyed their class (or didn't). They are people I know to be good people of faith in their lay and ordained vocations who take counsel with others before they act, who discern in community, and who truly have the heart of students at General in their minds. I do not mean to suggest that Dean Dunkle is not deeply faithful person; I do not have the experience to know. I trust the words of the faculty and the words of students who were at General him, however. My conversations with members of the class of 2014 encourage me to take the faculty at their word in their allegations.

In a slightly different vein, I have been fraught and upset with the tactics and habits of some members of the board in engaging this conflict via social media with individuals, as well as the general silence from the board in response to the materials made available from the (former?) faculty. As a communications officer I know very much that my personal blog and social media presences cannot reflect on goings on in the Diocese of California; despite any disclaimer I make, I speak with the authority of the bishop's office. 

It has been disturbing to know that trustees have reached out to classmates and asked them not to share their discomfort (and retraction of gifts as a result of said discomfort) about the situation in public because doing so seemed indulgent and judgmental, ignoring that good people with good hearts were working and this was tearing down the body — as though racist, sexist, and homophobic comments didn't do the same, and silence on the issues builds up the body. I have been disappointed to see a trustee suggest that a media story was moving farther away from the truth — although no one was saying what the truth was other than that the faculty were lying. I am appalled that the first reckoning of the situation from the board was a board member's reflection on Facebook.

In the 21st Century it is unfair and unreasonable for those in leadership to say "I can't say anything else, but you have to trust me," when those who oppose them are saying, "They haven't listened to or trusted us until this point, so we must make a drastic move." It is particularly unreasonable to make that request four and a half years after being on the brink of absolute financial disaster. The deafening silence — or perceived silence — is only drown out by unofficial communication made in one-offs.

I understand the value of confidentiality on sensitive topics, but silence is not these same as confidentiality and discretion. A statement about the need for confidentiality and an awareness of the situation — before accepting untendered resignations during the course of an investigation — helps people have faith, grace, and patience. Failure to communicate (and collaborate) does not work in the 21st century. Google is more powerful than "please don't talk about this" and redacted letters. 

[Update 2:02 p.m. PDT, 2 October 2014: the final paragraph has been removed for the purpose of blogging to protect students on the Close who are the most vulnerable to retaliation currently.]

Normal enough for God,

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
M. Div. '12

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Letter from the Class of 2012

Dear Bishop Sisk and the Board of Trustees:

We greet you from across the nation; we greet you in the midst of the good, good work God has called us to, but we greet you with heavy hearts as we read news from General. We know some of you well, but we know the faculty deeply, and our hearts break at this schism in the seminary. Having been students at other recent moments of crisis for General, we know well the potential this community has for finding common ground in the face of division. In our own time, the faculty supported us with great courage and love, and we hope to live into the example of our Lord, who is reconciling all things to God.

In the past four days we’ve seen accusations formal and informal thrown from one side to the other, and we are deeply worried that this division will have dramatic consequences for the future of General. We are looking for visible signs of Christian mediation in good faith, and have not found them. Each side seems to have taken an irreconcilable stance against the other, though they both profess their willingness to meet and be flexible. As the Trustees, you have the highest stature in the system at this point, and so, as loving alumni and alumnae of General, we urge you to find a way to mediate this conflict quickly. Meeting with all the faculty together – separate from the Dean – will show your intention to take steps in good faith, even if some of their demands seem untenable at first request. Meeting with the faculty together will also show your willingness to take responsibility for a situation that the two sides seem unwilling or unable to fix. We worry that letting this conflict entrench is leading to a loss of trust in the institution, and will further compromise the trust of current and future students.

We speak out of deep love, and we speak out of deep respect. We also speak out of Christian authority; as leaders of the Church, we need you to fulfill your obligation to the future of the seminary.

Matthew 18:15-17 seems to be brought out in every church conflict. We remember Jesus’ final words in the passage: “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” We understand that some of you feel your trust and good faith has been compromised. Yet even the Gentiles and tax-collectors found favor and reconciliation at the table with the Lord. We urge you towards a similarly-inspired charity. We urge you not to write off one side of this conflict for the other. We urge you to creatively and willingly engage this conflict in order to secure the future of the seminary.

With loving, broken hearts,

The Class of 2012


The Rev. Chris Ballard
The Rev. Rebecca Barnes
The Rev. Greg Brown
The Rev. Cathy Carpenter
The Rev. Colin Chapman
The Rev. Amy Cornell
The Rev. Jeff Evans
The Rev. Howard Gillette
The Rev. Jadon Hartsuff
The Rev. Jean Hite
The Rev. James Joiner
The Rev. Brad Jones
The Rev. Cathy Kerr
The Rev. Suzanne LeVesconte
The Rev. Renny Martin
The Rev. Sandra McLeod
Mr. Adam McCluskey
The Rev. Joe Mitchell
The Rev. Brandt Montgomery
The Rev. Jean Mornard
Mr. Michael Mornard
The Rev. Sue Morgan*
The Rev. Matt Oprendek
The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
The Rev. Linda Racen
The Rev. Andrew Reinholz
The Rev. Jim Robertson*
The Rev. Sam Tallman
The Rev. Keith Voets
The Rev. Ben Wallis

*names added after initial release due to communication difficulties allowing consent before initial release

You can't always "Shake it off" Part 2

Instead of getting down to all the troubles of the world — and heaven knows there are plenty — I invite you to get down...

to this sick beat.

By get down, I clearly mean ground yourself in this time of trial at GTS, pray without ceasing, and try to have patience and charity.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

You can't always "Shake it off"

And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

Two weeks ago as I was going in to have dessert and drinks with some friends another told me that his new jam is Taylor Swift's "Shake it off" (video above). It has a catchy beat, there are issues of cultural appropriation in the video, and can have a positive message ideally — be yourself, don't let others bring you down, keep being you even if there is disapproval from those around you.

This kind of message of affirmation works great on the dance floor: be there to dance, enjoy yourself, shake it off when the haters hate. It does not, however, work well in the board room or faculty meetings. A perpetual mindset of shaking it off prevents one from being open to hearing criticism and necessitates taking on an air of perfect superiority.

And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

A letter was just released from the faculty of General Seminary to the Board of Trustees from almost two weeks ago. The board interpreted it as letters of resignation (that is to say corporately decided that instead of talking to the faculty it would be easier to fire them) while making no mention of what how they were handling the very serious allegations against the current Dean and President.

If you read the letter (available here) you'll note that there are charges of sexism, racism, and homophobia not only from the dean to the faculty, but also in the interactions of the dean with students. I take personal stock in some of the comments the faculty say the dean made, notably that I'm a gay man who went to General which he is scared of being seen as the gay seminary (even with 1/3 of my class being gay men — that's still not a majority by any means) and emphasizing "normal people."

And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

I'm not sure who he envisions the normal people to be, but based on his general tone and lack of awareness about cultural sensitivity to anything but being a straight white man, it would appear that's the kind of normal people he wants. More straight white men even as the patriarchy loses just a tiny bit every day...and as non-religious friends on rare occasion will think about coming to church with me — because the people inside aren't quite as homogenous as they'd imagined, and because the leadership definitely isn't — and that's with a major awareness of just how many faithful old white people are in our congregations.

As I've read the writings of the dean and the letters from the faculty something that strikes me as out of touch not only is seeking "normal people" but the refusal and insistence on non-collaboration. Various sources have said that in the interview process Dean Dunkle said that he didn't like collaborating. Why, oh why, would a board of trustees charge someone who doesn't believe in collaboration with leading formation for those who will see the church into the future? Has no one read Tweet if you <3 Jesus? Has no one ready anything about how millenials function? As a millennial those pieces often drive me up the wall, but are sometimes spot on. It's terrible modeling to rule by fiat and expect the Church to stay alive. 

And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

In April 2010 I wrote, "Andrew Sullivan points out that most of the reaction from the Vatican and American bishops has been either denial or to attack those who are critical, often by calling names. This is denial after decades (centuries) of this being not talked about and not dealt with. And now we have more people saying 'I didn't know,' 'It wasn't my fault,' and that they won't 'be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion.'

I think there are times when people just want those who bore responsibility to own that responsibility. Not to have closed door meetings and be less than forthcoming about what is actually going on, but to include the people who have been, are being, and will be affected in the process of determining next steps, for justice or for institutional advancement."

And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

The financial ills at General have changed, and there's a new Dean and President. Ills are running anew, though. When confronted with reports about the Dean and President the board instead of claiming they didn't know seem to be trying to just shake it off because the professors must be haters. 80% of the faculty, who have been there for varying degrees of time — from I've never met in the two years since I graduated to before I was born (literally). 

Twice in five years I've had major challenges and frustrations with the Board of Trustees at my alma mater. Their only communication with alumni to this point has been commenting on Facebook posts or critically messaging them privately about posts concerning money saying, "Good people with good hearts and mere human capacities are of course struggling with this. Public postings taking away gifts from GTS are not helpful in building the Body," which also implies that the situation is normal and shouldn't be criticized or aired — although nothing at all has come from the seminary in any form or from the trustees in any official form. As the faculty points out, the board continues to investigate accusations against the dean but ignores his impact on the working relationship with the faculty.

We shall know the truth, and it will make us free...but it will make us free by transforming us, which it can't do if we just shake it off.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

On striking and (not) communicating

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. —Matthew 18.15-17

On Thursday morning I was reminded that it was the last Thursday of September, Matriculation Day at General Seminary. As the tradition has developed, I changed my profile picture on Facebook to an instant from the last Thursday of September in 2009, when I matriculated to the General Theological Seminary.

Yesterday morning as I got ready for work, a classmate with whom I matriculated and graduated, messaged me and asked if I'd heard about our seminary. I asked if I'd heard what. There has been much to hear since September 2009: a financial crisis, a dean's resignation, separating the offices of dean and president, selling property, rebuilding the endowment, ending debt, appointing a new dean. I  had not heard the latest, which was this email sent to students
Dear students,
We have a serious conflict which we are seeking to resolve and are taking to the Board of Trustees. Until they respond we will not be teaching, attending meetings, or attending common worship. Please be assured that we have not taken these steps hastily or lightly. Trust that we have acted in what we believe to be the best interests of your formation, our common life and the future of General Seminary. We hold you in the highest regard. Please pray for us, the Board, and the Dean and President.
The email was signed by almost all of the faculty, many of whom I know from my time as a student. I thought it odd and that the conflict must be serious: if these professors who I cherish deeply and greatly respect as lay and ordained Christians were willing to boycott chapel, it must be extremely serious. I hoped for more information throughout the day.

In Spring 2010, as I ended my first year and prepared to be a chaplain at a hospital, the seminary community learned the depth of the seminary's financial challenges not from a  meeting with the dean or faculty, not from an email from the administration, but from The Episcopal Cafe and Episcopal News Service. A press release had been sent to the press — but not to the students. Students and alumni/ae learned of the challenges (partially) from the news, even as some were living in Chelsea Square.

After I learned of the faculty strike from my friend's Facebook message pasting the email to me, I heard nothing from the seminary as an alumnus. As of this writing I still have heard nothing at all from the seminary, which has access to alumni/ae mailing lists, even as the faculty have said more and as speculation simply swirls. Yesterday evening The Episcopal Cafe had another letter to students which referenced some sort of issues the faculty finds with the current dean and president of the seminary and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

I come at this current situation as an alumnus of the seminary wondering what the hell is going on and as a diocesan communications officer — a role for which the seminary did not directly prepare me, but encouraged me to explore my interests which led to my being ready for such a position. It's disheartening to see that the seminary has not said anything at all via email, not even to acknowledge the situation or release an official statement.

The faculty who have elected to strike seem to be communicating with the students as the principal stakeholders, but they aren't the only ones. They seem to have attempted to raise their concerns with the dean and president, and that hasn't worked. It seems they've done it as a group and as individuals, and that hasn't worked. Now through initiating a direct action they're bringing the whole church into it.

Jesus tells us in Matthew to point out the fault at each of the phases. The communications that have been received from the faculty — secondhand — are vague about what the faults are. The longer letter from the faculty references the Letter from Birmingham Jail, but there is a sharp difference. While the faculty note that they hope to negotiate — but not what about. King and civil rights workers engaging in direct action had a clear goal (in Birmingham specifically it was the removal of Bull Conner).

I trust the faculty who have chosen to participate in a strike and hope that negotiations begin soon under the direction of the board of trustees...however in making semi-public half-statements they have introduced anxiety for their concerns, yet not enumerated those concerns. This half speech leaves rumors to build and gain traction or people to simply be dumbfounded and not know what's going on.

I appreciate the value of direct action — but have witnessed it being more effective when there are clear expectations and requests that are set out publicly beforehand. I live in California where everyone strikes, from nurses to transit operators to produce workers. These strikes are powerful by effecting others and raising awareness of the concerns. They annoy people who have to take buses, but those riding the buses learn about drivers' lives...but those striking don't say "We've got some problems, and we want to tell you we have problems, but we don't want to tell you what they are," which is how the letters from the faculty read — perhaps in an attempt to save embarrassment for students or to avoid discomfort...but they aren't clear communication.

At the end of the days, I am praying for the seminary because that's all I can do — and ask others to do. However I think that yet again what's happening at General Seminary can teach the church what its missing about communication. Everything gets out. Quickly. We as a church need to be prepared for that, and know what we want to say to avoid the wonderings and the stresses. Ignoring events doesn't make them not happen, it makes us look like we're out of the loop, even as the loop is growing bigger.

What helped the anxiety at General in 2010-2011 was how blunt and honest the administration was about the financial challenges the seminary faced. When we knew the truth we were set free. I pray that much sooner than later we will know much more about the challenges the seminary is facing now so that we can be set free of this anxiety and continue about our mission of restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.