Thursday, November 21, 2013

Will you stay silent?

Anyone who reads this blog likely knows that a Pennsylvania United Methodist elder in full connection has been suspended for 30 days. He was convicted on Monday for officiating at a same sex union. His son was one of the people whose union was celebrated. The jury found that he did, in fact, violate the Book of Discipline, the United Methodist Church's law book. I think the verdict is insane because rather than revoke his credentials, they have given him 30 days to discern and then expect him to voluntarily surrender them if he won't uphold the discipline in its entirety. I hope he doesn't.

Jeremy Smith has shared a list of ways that many United Methodists don't uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety yet aren't having charges filed or facing trials for them. He's also written about some of the shady background of the charges being filed — which local secular press covered as well. I spent four years as what I now call a transitional United Methodist.

My time with the UMC was mostly outstanding — I was welcomed whole heartedly into a new youth group as a high school junior and participated in the Wesley Foundation through all four years of college; I worked for it for two of them even as an Episcopalian. I served on the Steering Committee for the United Methodist Student Movement for a year. I started my discernment for ordination process with the United Methodist Church.

While liturgical tastes/expectations/practices and the candidacy for ordination process (not set up for undergraduates who go to college outside of their district or annual conference) were much higher on the list of reason I left the United Methodist Church, my sexuality was number three. Ten years after Gene Robinson was elected, consented to, and consecrated bishop in The Episcopal Church the United Methodist Church is removing a man for marrying his son. I happily entertain discussion about covenant, rules, civil disobedience and biblical obedience; unjust laws being no law and all and juries having to follow laws rather than ignore the ones they don't like.

I understand that. I worked for a pastor who didn't baptize infants and rebaptized adults, too. The annual conference where my campus ministry was has an elder in full connection who performed a Skype "baptism" years ago and the video has been on YouTube since then, with vows omitted, thanksgiving over the water omitted, etc. And how many bishops, when they instruct ordinands to wear black robes, ignore the paragraph of the Discipline that mandates following the ordinal — which is really clear that ordinands should wear an alb?

I don't think that any of them would have been put on trial if I'd filed a complaint — but then again, I don't think that trials are the way to settle disagreements in the church, particularly if punitive justice rather than restorative is what is being sought, especially if the sentence lets the jury not feel like the punishment is on them.

What I don't understand, though, is those who are staying in the United Methodist Church and waiting for it to change around them. I am not the only who to have made the comparison between individuals' relationship with the institution as one of an abusive relationship. I have watched dear friends be subject to processes of unofficial investigation with due process violated as they hoped a trial wouldn't emerge who love the institution. I have seen friends fight to hide their sexuality at all costs. No, not even hide their sexuality, but hide anything that might give suspicion that they might be LGBT and always looking over their shoulder, concerned who saw what and who is or is not "safe."

I particularly don't understand it when they stay they want to stay in the institution to work for change, but don't work for change. More than LGBT people saying that (which they do) I don't understand so-called allies that will say nice things in small groups about their support for LGBT people but won't speak against anti-gay resolutions as their annual, jurisdictional, or regional conferences. One of the reasons I like Jeremy Smith and his blog so much is that as a straight ally he doesn't hide his support for LGBT inclusion.

As many have pointed out, and with whom I agree, not everyone is called to surrender credentials in solidarity, to come out and have them revoked, or to officiate at blessing same-sex unions. But if someone is saying that those aren't their calls, what are their calls? I don't believe that God calls any of us to have secret safe groups as the only places where we express our support, approval, or beliefs that are different.

After learning his sentence Frank Shaefer said, "I feel I have to be an advocate, an outspoken advocate for all lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people...I will never be silent again." For following his call, he's facing losing his credentials. If you are a United Methodist, what is your call in this? You can't be defrocked for publicly, vocally, advocating for changing the way things are. Your abstentions are just as hurtful as a no vote to the person you've just told you support completely.

If you are just way more Methodist than I am and staying with the institution to change it, how are you working for that change? Working, not just hoping. Are you organizing groups? Drawing attention to difference? Or hoping that someone with a little less to lose — or maybe even a little more — will do that?

This is probably a little heavy-handed, but I'm hurting. I'm hurting for my friends all over the church who love the church that keeps slapping them in the face and punching them in the gut. I'm hurting because I worry that staying in the system has turned into joining the system and that fear is beating love. I'm hurting, largely, because I'm wondering and worried when it will be someone I know who despite their best efforts at covering anything that hinted at queerness are found out and dragged through a trial. How are you working on this?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Congregational, transformational change

Two weeks ago I started a series I expected to write over the next week, and that didn't happen. It just didn't. I haven't lost it, though. Two weeks ago I wrote about expecting personal change, inviting people to tell their stories of it, and sharing one of my own. I said there would be three, and here is part two — about the congregation.

My work as a diocesan staff person is not limited to working in the diocesan office, and I wouldn't let it be. I love being in the field, meeting with clergy and lay people of churches from around the Diocese of California. I hate to say it, but the people with whom I've met (although it's been at their choice and that may say something) have had a lot less anxiety about the kinds of changes I suggest and propose than leaders from congregations with whom I met in Provinces I and II while I was in seminary.

In my specific context and ministry I'm often advocating for a greater social media presence by congregations and encouraging them (enabling?) them to see that as part of their ministry to their flock and to those beyond the congregation. I can't count the number of times someone has said, "Well, no one in our church is on Facebook or Twitter." That is possible, if unlikely, but there are countless untold numbers who are on Facebook and Twitter and not in your church...and that's how I reply to that.

I met with a rector and a new staff member of his today, and the rector had a senior warden who used to say "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you always got." Talking about how churches need to change is nothing new and it's something that something of an echo chamber online right now, but I've often seen it in a context of desperation and fear of dying or death — rather than changing the world, and being changed ourselves.

A few months ago at a conference of lay and clergy leaders a priest ask where the requirement to be a baptized, confirmed member to serve on some governing body (I think her vestry) came from — if it was canon or tradition. She said, "Because I have great people who want to serve, but none of them is confirmed. How do we change the canon?" Yes, changing the canon would be a change, that's certain, but why can't we ask the people involved in leadership to be confirmed? If they want to be a part of governance do we not want them more invested and committed — and given additional grace and strength of the Holy Spirit to perform that ministry?

The Gerasene demoniac was bursting with the Good News of what Jesus had just done for him. I asked two weeks ago how we are doing that and how we're enabling individuals to do that. Now, though, I am curious how we're encountering a Christ who is changing our congregations, a Christ who sets us free from always doing what we've always done (and thus getting what we've always gotten). Rather than assuming things will never change, where do we look for change to happen and trust God that it will?

In April I attended the Episcopal Communicators conference, where the keynote speeches were on social media. Communicators at various levels of church leadership spoke from their experience and some spoke of the difficulty they've had with churches that struggle and refuse to embrace newer media (which I think also speaks to a refusal to embrace or welcome new people and voices, let alone look for or recruit them). Someone at one of my tables said something that I latched on to and loved — let the dead bury the dead.

There are tools available for trying something new. There are tools available for asking how we might be church differently, how we might learn to burst with Good News as a community of what Christ has done for us. I think that suggesting that the dead bury the dead is actually one place where we can be expecting change; rather than coddling let there be a call to change and know it will happen. If it doesn't, ask why — starting with if the people there knew the Risen Christ in their daily lives.

When we as congregations are bursting with this Good News, we have to tell (and in turn change) our communities, too. As I read new-atheist rants about how bad religion is, I note that most of them have never studied theology nor have they cared to look much into the past of religion, certainly the past of Christianity. There have been awful things done in the name of Christ, certainly, but hospitality as a Christian virtue — welcoming the stranger, even if she is sick — led to the beginnings of hospitals.

Romans thought that Christians' giving food to whoever came to their houses was dumb, that people were scamming them going from house to house getting as much as they can. Maybe they were...but maybe someone needed help to get going again. The Good News of Christ changes lives and it changes communities. How are our churches changing themselves into new contexts and how are they changing the world around them? What would be missing in a neighborhood if a church ceased to exist there?

In my work with priests and lay leaders, talking about communication and communication strategy I get to reference two outstanding resources that the Diocese of California has produced. One is on welcome, and the other on new member incorporation...though it deals with changing communities and changing the world. They are both available here in the be::community library. They are series totally about two hours each. The ones I most highly recommend (in this context) are those by Bishop Marc Andrus and by Cn. Chuck Robertson.

The congregation with which I met today does outreach to inmates on death row and to teen mothers. They support a food pantry, too. They are changing their community if bit by bit. Today we worked on how to share that and broaden the laborers of the harvest. How is your congregation laboring, changing itself (with God's help) and changing the world around it?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Every long run needs a water element

I am running the New York City Marathon in November. I haven't written about that here because I haven't been writing here enough. I'm running with Colin Chapman (and at his suggestion/intervention). We're running together with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which works to fight childhood obesity. This is immediately where my mind went yesterday when I heard the end of the epistle reading (to the Hebrews), "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us..."

An old friend of mine took up triathlons in college and referenced this passage on his blog. Yesterday it hit me for the first time how much better this imagery works now that I'm actually training for a big race that requites perseverance. It also works because I use the images of people who've donated to my fundraising goals to get me out of bed, off the couch, and keep putting one foot in front of the next. I have a cloud of witnesses that helps me run with perseverance the distance that has been set before me. I also rely on the strengths of people who taught me to run and were patient with me in the early days.

On my 8 mile run yesterday I had some other realizations. I ran through Golden Gate Park yesterday and realized as I passed the Prayer Book Cross and the waterfall behind it that my long runs need a water element. In baptism classes at Trinity, Wall Street I talk about how it's no accident that the church uses water, food, and drink as its primary tangibles. I regularly made mention of remembering my baptism as I ran along the Hudson.

I got to the Prayer Book Cross (waterfall, and creek) as my run was starting to get to me because I was doing a bigger distance. (I only realized later that it started to go downhill at that point which helped), and that's when I got the new mantra (which our running coach encourages) of "run with perseverance the distance that has been set before me." I just kept saying it to myself, too. All my long runs, really, have had a water element to them: the Seinne, the Liffey, the Hudson, the Golden Gate Straight, and now this little creek.

About this time, though I started to get to an area of the park that was foggy. Earlier in the day (in Oakland) I'd been anxious about the heat and humidity of my run. Running through the park was delightful, especially as I got to the fog. It was cool and made me feel cooler. It was also a nice visual for running into the cloud (literally) of witnesses who were supporting me — financially and emotionally, giving money to the goal and giving encouragement when I am discouraged, and harassing me to go for my run.

Later today I'm going to be messaging people who've supported me financially and ask them what they'd like me to listen to on my runs and race, a way of carrying them with me on my race, remembering who requested what song and thinking about them on my run, how they'd helped me and were continuing to help me run the race that had been set before me...and 26 miles is definitely going to need some perseverance.

If you'd like to join the cloud of witnesses helping me on my run — and helping to fight childhood obesity — you can donate here.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Personal, transformational change

I've been meaning to write these three (?) blog entries for about two months. In my mind they're going to be personal, community, and institutional levels of transformational change. What is lighting a fire under my today is the following quotation from Irreducible Minimum: pure snark as church messaging
Don't expect to be transformed. Like, at all. It's wicked expensive, and we have other things to do. Jesus is inconvenient.
On June 23 I heard a great sermon about the Gerasene demoniac. The line I remember most from that sermon — because I had to write it down — is that the demoniac, when Jesus refuses to let him go with him, proclaims throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. The preacher said that he was "bursting with Good News of what Jesus had just done for him."

In this same sermon, though (as I recall) the preacher told an Episcopalians light bulb changing joke. One version of this I've heard includes having one to mix the drinks, but most versions of this the numbers change, but one person does something (either changing the light bulb or calling the electrician) and then a variable number of others do the same thing: talk about how much they liked the old lightbulb or miss it.

Do we as Episcopalians (as Mainline Protestants) fear, resist, or expect transformational change, the kind of change that is eye-opening to others (if not immediate) and that is contagious of a new life. Do we expect sanctification, being made holy, or are we quite content with business as usual? In the tradition I grew up in, people shared stories about how their lives had been changed by knowing Jesus. Some people gave up drinking (what they felt they needed to do) and others had peace through difficult times.

As we bring people into our flocks, are we avoiding transformational change by lowering standards or are we praying for the transformation of souls, encouraging people to make changes, and then supporting them in their efforts with God's help (which can quite easily come in the form of community assistance). I don't think these transformations will all be immediate and dramatic, but I am asking if we expect them at all. Do we really expect people to be being made holy in this life?

If it doesn't happen, yes, grace. But I understand grace as not only forgiveness all the time, but also God molding our hearts, minds, and wills more toward that of Christ — and in so doing setting us free from the things that bind us. The Gerasene demoniac was freed not only of the demons, but literal chains, and couldn't wait to tell people about his good news. Do we ask people what their good news is? And do we tell what ours is?

One experiences of transformation in my life, a time where I have experienced the most grace and growth with God, was when I came out to God and then began a coming out process to people who knew me. I think it was summer of 2007 when I was living in South Carolina. Earlier in the summer I'd had an intense conversation with my mom about a friend of mine in Alabama that my step-dad had said spent the night at our house — he hadn't.

My mom asked if he was gay and then asked if I was gay. I said no on both counts. I lied to my mom because I wanted to have my summer in South Carolina; I didn't want her to call my uncle and tell him that he needed to send me home. I was carrying the guilt and shame not only of being gay, but also lying to so many people — including actively lying when I was asked.

When I've told people this they say, "Um, don't you think God knew?" Well, yes, obviously God knew. God created me in God's image, but words, especially spoken words have power. In middle school a relief for me and plenty of other people was online chatrooms. We could talk about our curiosity because typing it made it not real. As long as we didn't say it out loud we weren't stuck.

When in my prayer I said "God, I'm gay." It seemed as though God thumped my forehead and said, 'Duh. That's how I made you." This was after years of praying to have those feelings taken away, lying on the floor of my bedroom in high school in tears praying for me and another dear friend to be straightened out. When I heard/felt the closest I've ever felt to God audibly speaking to me, I was filled with Joy (as Lewis writes about it) and started to have bubbly laughter.

That thing that I'd been hiding, been so afraid of, been lying about — wasn't anything to worry about. It wasn't analysis of scriptures that changed my mind, it was the presence of Christ breaking the chains of shame and guilt that bound me. That's what started my real-life coming out process beyond just a few friends, and it's what really got rid of the fear I had around me. In John 3 Jesus says, "For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."

I was set free and had to come to the light to show that my deeds are done in God — and yet there is change to come. I need to love more simply and rely less on others' opinions of me. I need to do a better job having patience and not getting so angry. I need to do a much better job putting my whole trust in Christ as Lord. I have known change on the personal level, and thus I expect that a relationship with Christ brings it. It won't always look like mine, but I expect that something changes; life changes, and the status quo doesn't remain in a life, when someone knows the Good News of God in Christ.

What are your stories of freedom and redemption? How have your chains been broken? What stories do you have to tell, and where do you tell them, showing the transformational change of Christ?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Of Mary, Martha, and Meyers-Briggs

The audio for the sermon I preached at St. Paul’s, Oakland on July 21, 2013 (Luke 10.38-42) is available for streaming here.

There was not a manuscript for this sermon, just the wind of the Spirit wrapped around meditation and study.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sermon on Luke 10.25-37 — Audio

Here is the audio for my sermon on July 14, 2013 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Oakland.

You clicking the above link or clicking here should open a new tab/window for streaming the audio. The manuscript on which it is based is available here.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sermon on Luke 10.25-37

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
14 July 2013
Proper 10,C
Luke 10.25-37
The summer after my freshman year I worked for a non-profit called Alabama Rural Ministry. As are many summer camp type job experiences, it was one of the best, worst, and most transformative experiences of my college years. ARM is a non-profit in Alabama about mission camps and plugging youth and anyone else who desires into a meaningful way to serve. There are two sites that run, and one of them is only in the summer. ARM offers day camp for children in the communities it serves and home repair for people whose homes are in need of repair.

Youth groups, adult groups, whoever, come in and assist something of a skeleton staff each week during the summer. Some youth go to the day camp, others go to a construction site. The summer I served, our theme was “Love: the Unspoken Message.” We used the Prayer Attributed to St. Francis as a focusing prayer, and we used the story of the Good Samaritan as our focus text. St. Francis is said to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use word.”
Hearing this text, doing the same activities around it each week, doing the same foot washing, and hearing some awful examples of how we might be neighbors desensitized me to this text. It’s one that is read often enough and you’ve probably heard it myriad times. You may have heard the message boiled down to what seems self-explanatory from just the text, Juses’ admonition to “Go and do likewise.” Go do like the Samaritan did, go help your neighbors.
You may have heard it spun a variety of ways like why the priest needed to not touch the man because he would have become ritually unclean and wouldn’t have been able to serve the greater good. You may have been left with the question “How do you not help your neighbors? Who are those people you avoid when really you should be doing this great, generous kindness to?”
Now, that is certainly a valid tack to take on this text. It’s certainly worth pointing out that Jesus is baiting the elder of the law by having a Levite and a priest pass the man by, and then one of those awful Samaritans, someone outside of Judaism who surely couldn’t do anything right, help the man out. The elder of the law can’t even bring himself to say that the Samaritan was the man’s neighbor. The elder of the law can probably barely bring himself to say, “the one who had mercy on him.”
If you’ll look in your inserts, let’s look at the question and answer exchange a little more closely. The elder asks how to get into heaven, Jesus gives him an answer, and the man says he’s done that. Then the man says, “But who is my neighbor?”
In typical Jesus form, he doesn’t actually answer the question, he tells a story. Let’s pay attention to the end, though. Jesus says, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The elder of the law then replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” So if we take all of that story and back and forth it reduces to “Who is my neighbor?” with the answer not being “The person in need I help,” but “the person who helps me when I am in need.”
Do you see that? The man asks who his neighbor is. Jesus asks who the neighbor was. The lawyer answers the one who showed mercy. So instead of “We should all be helping our neighbors and not avoiding the panhandlers on the street” — which is certainly true — this text invites us to ask who the people who are helpful to us when we’re beaten and broken down. It asks us to think about those people who are our neighbors not because we reach out a hand of privilege to help them, but because they are with us and care for us when we are in need.
Taylor Burton-Edwards breaks down how clearly the Samaritan man was the beaten man’s neighbor by highlighting nine distinctive actions of the Samaritan man:
1.     He came near.
2.     He was moved with compassion.
3.     He went to him.
4.     He bandaged the wounds.
5.     He poured oil (a soothing agent) and wine (antiseptic) on the wounds.
6.     He put him on his animal.
7.     He brought him to an inn.
8.     He took care of him at the inn. All of this was what we (and Robert Lupton, in the book noted above) might refer to as "triage." These were things this man could not do for himself in his condition. So the Samaritan did.
 When he had to leave, he gave the innkeeper money to keep caring for him, promising to pay more if needed when he returned. This is a bit of triage, but also something more. The Samaritan wasn’t promising to come back right away and keep fixing everything for the man. Instead, he was making it possible for this man to have some kind of community, and supporting the basic support networks of that community, to get him back on his feet again.
Burton-Edwards points out that this is not ministry to, but ministry with. This is the bureaucracy of the incarnation — God coming to us and being in ministry with us in the person of Jesus. In this story on being neighborly, Jesus is inviting us to let ourselves be vulnerable to others’ help and to others’ hurt. On the cross Jesus modeled for us the ultimate vulnerability — not reacting to those crucifying him, but this was a culmination of his ministry of vulnerability where he shared his life with others. He didn’t have to give anyone enough information for them to betray him, but he did anyway.
To follow that example, to be in ministry with people, we have to get to know them, like Jesus the God-man living with humanity. Vulnerability — like Jesus voluntarily showed on the Cross or like the beaten man had forced on him — is not something that is valued in our culture today. Instead fear and self-preservation are often motivating factors.
We learned last night, as Andrew Cohen at TheAtlantic said, “you can go looking for trouble in Florida, with a gun and a great deal of racial bias, and you can find that trouble, and you can act upon that trouble in a way that leaves a young man dead, and none of it guarantees that you will be convicted of a crime.”  
We don’t have to go to Florida to see that white privilege is a real thing. Friday night saw the premier of Fruitvale Station here in Oakland and around the Bay Area, a reminder that two white police officers held a young black man down and shot him at point blank range. This event from my senior year of college was much closer to home for those of you who lived here then and live here now.

Nor do we need to look only at Florida to see how vulnerability and interacting with one another work with and against one another — while not convicted of murder, that police officer was convicted of something. We may see through a glass dimly, but the Kingdom of God has come near

We see in the Cross, and in today’s gospel text, that it doesn’t come near in violence, self-preservation, or self-defense. It doesn’t come near in turf wars, in drive-bys, or pre-planned gun fights. And it certainly doesn’t draw near in fear or retaliation — fear of the Samaritan for not being good enough, so bad as to not be named; fear of the black boy who’d bought a pack of Skittles, or violent retaliation against a broken justice system that privileges people from charges to trials to verdicts to sentencing.

No, beloved, the Kingdom of God has drawn near in people who make themselves vulnerable to be in ministry with those around them, to assess needs from a built relationship and meet them as they are able, not because they are better than.

The Kingdom of God draws near as you help the Food Co-op, in helping the work of Senior Resources at St. Paul’s. Two instances where not only do people — you — show mercy to vulnerable, marginalized people, but those serving show vulnerability by letting themselves know the margins, by leaving their places of comfort to places of disease and discomfort. The Kingdom of God draws near when you stand at sites of shootings in this city and say that they are not okay — and when you work with perpetrators and victims for peace with justice.

The man in today’s gospel text was beaten to that place, and the one who helped him was dismissed because of his race. Jesus admonishes the elder of the law to go and do likewise, but only after he tells him that his neighbor is the one who opened himself to vulnerability. To whom are you being a neighbor in that way?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sermon on Luke 10.1-11, 16-20

The Rev. Joseph P. Peters-Mathews
Proper 9, C
Lk. 10.1-11, 16-20
7 July 2013
St. Paul’s, Oakland

In the name of God in whose name we are baptized: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I have a secret for you, church, but it really shouldn’t be a secret, and it’s about who these passages are about. Yes, the lesson from the Hebrew scriptures is about Naaman and the lesson from Luke is about the 70. But with every passage of scripture proclaimed on a Sunday morning I like to use one of my step-dad’s tests when people come knocking on his door to try to recruit him: the so what test.

We’re hearing these texts on a Sunday — so what? Why? This season after Pentecost is used to strengthen disciples in ministries we learned about during Eastertide. So these passages are about…us. Every biblical text is about the story itself, and if there weren’t some timeless truth in it for us today the Church wouldn’t have made it a part of our timeless canon centuries ago.

Or Gospel lesson picks up where last week’s left off. Last week Jesus says that if you want to follow him, you have to leave your family, the dead have to bury the dead, you have to set your face to Jerusalem with him — prepared to die to yourself  — and put your hand to the plow and not look back. 

Today Jesus appoints 70 and gives him a simple message. These are the people who have left their families, have promised to try to die, and who are working to be like him. These 70 are us, the us who have waded in the troubled waters, been healed, and been gifted with the Spirit to do this simple, simple task — go to towns, say “the kingdom of God has come near!”, show that it is, and come back to report what happened.

Do you notice what Jesus doesn’t do? He doesn’t just take whoever shows up and expect them to be able to follow him, and he doesn’t send them out on their own willy-nilly. Jesus here knows what he’s doing — treating these new disciples like the youngsters, in following him, that they are. Jesus gives very clear directions: take this, not that; enter here, not there; when things don’t go well, move on — not in anger, but because it’s time to.

Jesus is sending out evangelists to tell the Good News, but he’s been teaching them what the Kingdom of God looks like for a while now. He’s made the difficulty of the journey clear by saying that it’s hard to follow him and forewarning them that it means dying to yourself. Even in the midst of admonition and direction about what they are to do, Jesus reassures them: “Know this! The kingdom of God has come near.”

The 70 go away for some period of time and come back among a changed and changing world. “Jesus! Even the demons submit to us!”

Jesus says, “Yeah, they do, but don’t get too excited about it. I’ve given you authority to do that, but be happier not that you can work wonders, but that you have done the work I have given you to do.”

All of that is exciting and wonderful…but so what? What does that have to do with us? Well, I told you that we’re the seventy, right? So…we’re supposed to be going out, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near, showing that it has, and then coming back to report it. How well do we do that, both as a congregation and as individuals? Have you seen that the kingdom of God has come near in the last few weeks? Have you told any of your friends about it? Any of your church people about it?

Maybe you have, but our American Mainline Protestant institutions don’t really prepare us to be evangelists. For so long we’ve assumed that everyone around us is Christian, that they’ve heard the Good News so we don’t need to be telling it.

That’s just not true anymore.

We may not be trained to be evangelists, but we have been trained to be witty and make signs. I saw a flyer on the Episcopal Church Memes Facebook page on Friday that made me cringe. Let me paint you a mental picture. The background is grey, but it’s got a white boarder. It opens with, “Think you already know enough about a Christian to not want to be one? THNK AGAIN!”  Below this opener is a picture of Rodin’s Thinker. Below that the flier says, “Think about a church…where God’s inclusive love is available to all; where the focus is on justice, not judgment; where the family values we preach value ALL families. Think about The Episcopal Church!”

There is then an Episcopal shield and our tag, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you,” with tiny copy, “Whoever you are, and wherever your find yourself on the journey of faith there is a place for you in The Episcopal Church. Come and see, and join us as we work together to make God’s love tangible to absolutely everybody.”

Those are a lot of good words, but yes, it made me cringe. For one, I’m a communicator and it had way too much text on it. No one has time to read this much on a bulletin board. The graphics weren’t the best arranged, and the shield and welcome didn’t follow style or font guides established by The Episcopal Church for use of the logo. Those are pedantic critiques, though and barely what made me cringe.

There is no mention of the Kingdom of God drawing near. There’s no mention of Jesus. The focus of what we’re doing today deals with justice, but we’re here to worship and be sent to work. Lots of words for people who already aren’t here — and probably aren’t going to be persuaded to reject their atheism, their agnosticism, or their suspicion of religious institutions because of a flier an anonymous person put up in a coffee shop.

With not just a Church, The Episcopal Church, but a whole faith tradition, Christianity on decline, commentator Taylor Burton-Edwards says, “The institutional solutions all presume we are primarily those who COME to worship and other activities, and that those activities (worship, education programs, and outreach or mission projects we create) are what makes for faithful Christian disciples.
Jesus’s approach is to SEND disciples in ministry in his name, with no programs, no ‘big show worship,’ and little more than an unwavering faith that the gospel is true: God’s kingdom has drawn near, and we can see that happening and participate in it everywhere.”

Here at St. Paul’s you are a people who are working to make the Kingdom of God’s nearness clearer through your participation in SAVE Oakland stand-ins and your advocacy for LGBT people. I’ve seen the kingdom of God come a little closer in the last two weeks with the overturning of Prop 8 and DOMA — and I’ve seen it going a little farther away with the overturning of the Voting Rights Act and a possible end to affirmative action in educational admission. I saw it at the press conference about religious affirmation of marriage equality when women and people of color were shown supporting marriage equality and calling the church to keep working to eradicate the sins of racism and gender discrimination.

You might say, “But Fr. Joseph, those are all just bureaucracy, what does that have to do with the Kingdom of God?” If we let “bureaucracy” mean “working through systems” then the Jesus who we follow engaged it completely from the process of maturing in the womb and being birthed to working his way through a fallen, failing “justice” system before his crucifixion. Jesus the incarnate God lived in our bureaucracy and told us to know that the kingdom of God has come near.

Jesus didn’t send out the 70 to post fliers hoping new people would come back to him. He sent them, like our deacon will do in a few minutes, to proclaim good news to real, live, people they encountered. To share their testimony of how God was changing the world, and to come back to strengthen others with what they saw. This season after Pentecost is about strengthening disciples to proclaim the Good News of the Resurrection, and I’m with you for six more weeks or so of them.

I was just coming into The Episcopal Church when Gerald Ford died; this prompted my Southern Baptist mother to ask me in a joking form, “What’s the one thing an Episcopalian won’t share with you?” I said I didn’t know. Her punch line was “His faith.” I was incensed then but now wonder if this might not be too true.

The kingdom of God has drawn near! Where have you seen it? Who are you telling? Are you sharing everything you have with others except your faith?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

(Over) Relying on the Prayer Book (pt 2)

Yesterday I wrote about over-relying on the Book of Common Prayer, particularly when the assembly prays for the whole state of Christ’s Church and the world. Yesterday I focused on how the forms of the Prayers of the People can be used more as guides and not necessarily explicit scripts. I used a specific example from the San Francisco Bay Area of how using them as scripts can sometimes miss the point of the Prayers of the People.

The second part of the Prayers of the People that gets to me when the Prayer Book is too heavily relied on is the Collect at the Prayers. One of the things Hatchett points out in “What’s in a rubric?” is that the collects given as options are the fourth choice of the Prayer Book’s preference. “Selecting a Collect” as I read it doesn’t necessarily mean using one from the Prayer Book — it’s praying a prayer that follows the collect form and collects the thoughts.

In seminary I learned the form of the collect. I was drawn to them in college because of their conciseness and focus that is also greatly trinitarian. Many of them have what I call the “why” to them — why are we asking this? I have written collects for various occasions and am prone to selecting them (i.e. making them up) on the spot.

There were many times in seminary that I would hear an outstanding sermon and pray that the presider would connect something from the lessons and sermon to the words of his/her Collect at the Prayers. Other times now I hear biblical texts and can’t help but hope the presider will incorporate them into the Collect. I make it a point, almost always, to do that unless everyone has the collect I’m supposed to be praying in front of them.

I don’t know exactly what I prayed at the conclusion of the Prayers of the People on Sunday. I do know, however, that Jesus had been telling the disciples that the Kingdom of God had come near and that they were to be proclaiming it. I know that when we look for it and when we ask for certain things, we see the Kingdom of God drawing near — and that God knows the best way to answer how we ask. I prayed something about God’s knowing what’s best for us, our being able to see the Kingdom of God drawing near, and that we have been called to proclaim that — and we need help.

“Almighty God, to whom our needs are known before we ask:  Help us to ask only what accords with your will; and those good things which we dare not, or in our blindness cannot  ask, grant us for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen,” would have worked, but I worry that it would have sounded rattled off and disconnected. The readings were about healing and the Kingdom of God drawing near. The sermon was too. Form V of the Prayers wasn’t expanded to include a plane crash or recent deaths to gun violence in the church’s area or uprisings in the Middle East. We weren’t praying for specific things like rain, so a collect about asking only what accords with God’s will (since the petitions were pretty intentionally aligned to do that) wouldn’t have connected I don’t think.

I think we may be scared of praying. I grew up Southern Baptist but think the Prayer Book has made me better at praying. I’ve learned a better language, I’ve learned to gather my thoughts into a collect (thus doing pre-prayer meditation to some extent), and learned how to keep prayers Godwardly focused, not incessantly treating God as a cosmic vending machine.

The Prayer Book is a beautiful tool. I don’t think we need to get rid of it or really any part of it (well, a few lines here and there) or just start making things up all on our own. Our connection of the Book of Common Prayer — that my sponsoring priest in Alabama and I said the same opening acclamation yesterday — is one of the reasons I’m Episcopalian. Probably the biggest reason, but I wonder if we don’t sometimes get in the way of paying attention to what’s around us, what’s in our hearts, and where God might be calling our attentions.

If you’re a priest, how often do you use something other than one of the eight options on pp. 394-395 of the Book of Common Prayer? When you do, what informs your words? Do lay people notice when the same collect is used every week, regardless of anything else? How do you feel about it? Were you aware that this is a place where the Prayer Book gives great flexibility?

Monday, July 8, 2013

(Over) Relying on the Prayer Book (pt 1)

One of the most formative articles for me while I was at General Seminary was Marrion Hatchett’s “What's in a rubric?” I don’t think that we can over-rely on the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer and there are plenty of blog entries and articles about their importance or lack thereof. I do, however, think that we can and do ignore the rubrics in ways that aren’t violations but do, in fact, lead to an over-reliance on the texts of the Book of Common Prayer.

One of the things Hatchett points out in the article is the directions of the Prayer Book concerning the Prayers of the People. Those rubrics are on page 383
Prayer is offered with intercession for
  • The Universal Church, its members, and its mission
  • The Nation and all in authority
  • The welfare of the world
  • The concerns of the local community
  • Those who suffer and those in any trouble
  • The departed (with commemoration of a saint when appropriate)
Any of the forms which follow may be used.
Adaptations or insertions suitable to the occasion may be made.
Any of the forms may be conformed to the language of the Rite being used.
A bar in the margin indicates petitions which may be omitted.
The Celebrant may introduce the Prayers with a sentence of invitation related to the occasion, or the season, or the Proper of the Day. (emphasis mine)
All of my GTS classmates are well aware that I don’t like using the forms from the Book of Common Prayer and prefer free-form intercessions or locally composed ones. Freeform allow the assembly to speak their petitions, and I’m all about not mumbling them; the Eucharist as a whole is the work of the assembly, and the Prayers of the People are not a time for private mumbled prayers. The assembly can’t pray with you if the other members don’t know that for which you are praying.

Locally composed petitions (that meet the six required areas of prayer above) can bring the requirements into sharper focus by letting those on the ground communicate the prayers of the local assembly to God in ways that are especially important to them. A community heavily involved in hunger issues might consistently pray that as we are fed at the altar the Church may work to feed the world. The forms of the Prayer Book are offered as models that may be used.

Yesterday, however, I encountered a strict, direct, straight usage of the Prayers of the People, Form V. I am doing supply work in the Diocese of California at the same congregation for the next two months and am wondering how I might work with their intercessors so that I’m not caught off guard. Not that the prayers are about me, but as has been observed, these are the prayers of the people, not for the people.

Form V has nothing inherently wrong in it, but when we use just the text of a form for the prayers we can miss important things — things that are necessary for us to be praying for. On Saturday a plane crashed at San Francisco International Airport. At the 8 a.m. service yesterday (because I wasn’t thinking on my feet as presider) there was no mention of the crash or any of those affected. The Egyptian military has ousted Egypt’s president, and there’s no telling how or when those conflicts will end. There was no mention of that in the prayers on Sunday, but Form V doesn’t even leave space for people to add things that are important.

Our prayers yesterday were heartfelt and sincere. As we stood, I’m certain that God knew those of us who were concerned for Egypt, all places that are afflicted with daily violence, and the aftermath of the plane crash...but I’m not entirely sure we followed the direction to pray for the concerns of the local community, and I’m wondering how that might be changed throughout the Church.

Now it’s your turn dear reader: How have you introduced getting away from a word-for-word reading of the Book of Common Prayer forms for the Prayers of the People? What has worked in terms of education beforehand to make a transition smoother? Have you had bad experiences with free-form intercessions or locally composed prayers? How do those affect our being in community together?

Friday, June 28, 2013

I’m a priest and a person part 2

When I wrote about being a priest and a person last week, I didn't realize there was going to be a Part 2, but here it is. One of the things I said was, "I'm never pointed out because I'm a man," and frankly that continues to be true. Something else I said, though, was "I vehemently oppose people with a 'priest' profile and a 'real' profile — the priesthood is part of my real life, and everything I post on Facebook is a reflection of my priesthood." I stand by that, and I want to elaborate on it a little bit more than I did last week. Rationale later in the post.

If one scrolls through my Facebook feed, this week's news — Fisher, Shelby County, Windsor, and Perry, along with Wendy Davis — are pretty prominent. (It's been a busy news week which is why I haven't written the blog series that I will write next week about transformational change and the Good News as I've lived it. It will elaborate on some other thoughts in this piece.) So this week's news has been high on my agenda on Facebook, and that's clear.

What's also clear, usually, is that I'm a priest. It's front and center on my "About" section that I'm a priest associate at a parish in the Diocese of California. I post musings from a Christian perspective often. The pictures of me in vestments or a clerical collar are legion. My liberalism is unabashed, as are my Episcopalianism and gayness. These things are all part of how I live as a priest-person.

I try to keep these things integrated online for a few reasons, some of which have only come to me after the fact. My learning about myself and discovering myself has largely happened online. At my bachelor party the clear theme was that people from all over the country I'd either met online or maintained a friendship over years and distance with online. I am a digital person. I realized much after the fact that not splitting myself up like horcruxes online better enabled me to be myself in person. That is, I'm much more comfortable saying "I'm a priest" at a party with boldness and no discomfort because I've engaged so many other aspects of my life alongside my vocation online. 

I think that having one online presence can help fight clericalism, too. Someone on Episcopal Cafe commented that clergy haven't been made any more holy or something. That commenter may believe that, but as long as clergy let themselves be boxed off — and collude with the boxing — they have an additional burden placed on them as Professional Christians. Nothing says "Holier than thou" like having a Facebook page devoted entirely to one's sermons and God-dy blog entries while keeping a secret one for your friends where you tell dirty jokes about college. Online integration keeps standards of appropriate behavior consistent, I think.

So in my online integration I don't face being pointed out because I'm a man. When I'm with the gays, as I said, I often get a lot of questions about being religious. While in my last entry I noted that my parish, cat, and husband all know that I'm gay and a priest, this week has crystalized for me that there's another group watching — southern Christians who tangentially know me. They may have gone to church with me when I was in the fourth grade; may be friends with extended family; may just see some of my comments on a mutual friend's posting.

This is where I understand the exhaustion of not wearing a collar to the grocery store, and yet on I go. Twice this week, at least two other times in the last six months, I have gotten Facebook messages asking me about being a cleric and gay. Most of them have actually been pretty open to discussion or are just asking. Using the word "justify" is a bad start, but asking out of curiosity is something I'll engage. I make clear that I'm not interested in debate or argument or trying to be converted. I'm past that point.

So I try to be happy to answer those questions. But like comments from people about being a woman cleric (I imagine) it gets to be exhausting. I want to give a "let me google that for you" link with their exact question or just reply with a link to something from SoulForce. I often do include a link to something from SoulForce as a resource, but I don't let it stop there — because Jesus didn't stop at referencing the rabbis' commentaries or the text it self, he told stories.

I'm a priest and a person, and I have stories about the Good News of coming out to God and to others. I have Good News about being set free of bondage that held me, not as those on the right say to my sexuality, but bondage of lying to myself, shaming myself, and feeling guilty. I get tired of telling my stories, but we're a story-telling people as Christians. I've taken vows to proclaim by word, deed, and example the Good News of God in Christ and to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship.

I'm not the token woman cleric in a small town, but I'm realizing I'm the only gay cleric — or even Christian — that many people from much earlier in my life are even tangentially acquainted with, and they're curious. More to come next week on how much grace was a part of my coming out (or maybe I'll write it tomorrow for pride). 

Without the personhood of my priesthood I would not be able to share the Good News; I wouldn't be able to talk about how I know God's love. It is exhausting. Dear Jesus does saying the same thing to people I barely know get exhausting. I have boundaries around it, too. It happens on my schedule and I'm upfront about what is and isn't okay. Only six months in and I'm thankful for the grace to boldly proclaim the gospel of salvation. I know the importance of this office and believe I have been called — and strengthened in ordination and the sacraments — to do this proclamating among all with whom I work...which means telling stories to people on Facebook and in the grocery store and the bar.