RSS Feed

Tag Archives: canterbury

I know you are, but what am I?

On Wednesdays, my plucky Canterburians join with the Lutherans for a joint evening of discussion, fellowship, and food.  This semester, we’re discussing ‘Modern Saints:” people who have applied their Christian faith in very tangible ways in the not-so distant past (Archbp. Oscar Romero and the martyrs of El Salvador, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Edith Stein, the Berrigans, Archbp. Desmond Tutu and the leaders of South Africa, etc.)

I noticed something in the past few weeks, and it’s the same phenomenon I’ve noticed in every community I’ve ever served: rural or urban, Virginia or Arizona, young or old.
As the students described it, the problem was that ‘Christians’ had taken over everything.  These Christians they described were against gay marriage and civil unions, didn’t like people of other faiths, and also were not fans of contraception, or really women at all, as we had seen in recent weeks.  And this was pretty much why we should keep Christians out of politics.
This is not just a ‘kids these days!’ thing.  I have never served or attended a parish where I have ever heard a majority of the parishioners declare themselves Christian.  (“Christian” borders on an Other-ing term in the Episcopal Church; we are Episcopalian before we are anything.)
In some ways, it’s hard to argue with this.  When several of the candidates for presidents are claiming to speak for the entire Christian faith, it’s difficult not to take them at their word, when there’s no clear voice calling them on it.
But at the same time, those students speaking so articulately of their frustration with modern politics?  They are Christian too!  Those people who fill the pews in every church I’ve ever served?  Also Christians!  (And not the Satan-possessed kind, either.  Sorry, Rick Santorum.)
And if we’re all Christians, and we don’t agree with all that’s being done in the name of Christianity, then…we should probably, possibly, look at this, yes?  Because either there is a small group of zealots doing some crazy stuff in the hijacked name of our Lord and Savior with our tacit permission, or many of us have simultaneously decided to be open, tolerant, loving people on our own, in total opposition to this, the Gospel of Smiting (and two thousand years of received tradition, but who’s counting?)
See, this is what I think.
This is a theology problem as much as it is a PR problem.  The PR problem gets talked about all the time–how we need to reclaim the airwaves, use these here interwebz, LOLcats, we can haz Emerging!Churches, etc.  These things are absolutely true.  Mainline Protestatism lost the past few decades to the fundamentalist evangelicals the moment that first guy bought a new-fangled TV station for cheap in the early 1970s.
But it’s a theology problem too.  We’ve all heard the carefully-crafted theology around fundamentalist beliefs.  In fact, most people today know that theology so well that they can’t tell that not all Christians believe it.  Ask the average person walking down the street about where people go after they die, and they will probably spout something about the saved believers in heaven and the damned in hell and St. Peter at the gate.  Now, ask them about what might be involved in eventual universal redemption, and note their look of confusion and panic.
And that’s our fault.  There’s no answering, well-publicized and widely-taught cohesive theology to the really loud stuff.  (Unless you read Miroslav Volf, or Moltmann, AS YOU SHOULD, but I accept that not everyone has that sort of time.  Also, that stuff is sort of systemic, and not issue-based.)
So here’s my plan:  I am starting a Theology For the Rest of Us series here on the blog.  ::Sound of trumpets!::  It shall be theology that attempts to explain why progressive Christians believe the things we do.  Like: women as full moral agents!  Marriage as something other than Procreation-Station!  Stewardship and care of the earth!  And all other topics as may be assigned.
We, in the wider church, need to become better at talking about our faith in concrete, logical terms, in order to give an “accounting for the hope that is in us”, as the Bible, and my preaching prof both say.
“So, Come!  Let us reason together!”

Wear heels. Dig them in.

Two weeks ago, I got an email from our campus Roman Catholic ministry inviting me to their weekly speaker series.  This week, they were hosting a speaker from San Diego, a woman who had started her own affiliate of the National Organization for Marriage.  She would be speaking on “Re-defining Marriage: How Same-Sex Marriage threatens Religious Liberty for all of us.” *

Oh joy.
My immediate reaction was confusion.  The Lutherans, and the United Christian Ministry were also invited, and all of us had had the “come to Jesus” conversation of progressive Christians with the other Christian ministries on campus over the summer.  This boiled down to:  Lookit!  Be nice to the gay kids, and if you find that you can’t pull this off, then send them to us, and we’ll do it for you, and save face for you.  If you can’t one of the Allies, then at least be Switzerland, for crying out loud.
But, clearly, the Catholics were not being all Swiss about this issue this week.  So what was I called to do in this moment?
There’s a case to be made for staying away. I could plead ecumenical unity, I could listen to the voice of my Paranoid!Bishop in my ear, asking why I was stirring up things again**, I could point out that it’s not like the Catholics had ever done anything to me personally (lately), and we’re all the church, and the church should stick together!
And sure.  Ecumenical unity is fine (though long gone) as is avoiding any theoretical confrontation with the bishop.  They are perfectly nice sorts of things.
But right now, the sorts of things this woman was saying is passing as mainstream Christian thought in much of the country, and I have not elected her my spokesperson.
So I went.
I went, and I sat towards the back in my collar, and my “I’m wearing a grown-up, respectable suit!” suit, and heels. (I had been invited, after all.)  I informed my students of what was happening, and asked if they wanted to join me.  Because they are uniformly awesome, they turned out in force, and asked if they could make t-shirts for the occasion.
I sat in the back and listened quietly and peaceably, while taking incredibly sarcastic notes.  The speaker basically achieved the perfect storm of right-wing social theory.  Marriage is for the sole purpose of creating and nurturing children.  Biological ties only create a family, and these ties cannot and should not be broken.  (This really surprised me–I don’t believe I’ve ever heard someone advocate against adoption the way she did, although she allowed it in ‘special circumstances.’)  Birth control is evil, as is gender neutral language, economic equality between the sexes, and the ‘blurring of gender roles.’  The Obama Administration is apparently out to get religious people, in its requirement that everyone (except churches and other religious institutions) have to provide birth control coverage to employees cost-free.  (The nerve!  Asking women to decide for themselves whether to purchase it or not!)
So she was very thorough.  She even threw in a condemnation of the estate tax (because I think it’s a rule at this point for speaking publicly as a conservative.)
But then came the Q&A.
The questions were pretty benign.  There was really mild pushback from the students, but none that she appeared to hear.
Then I got the mike.
I pointed out that really, her main problem seemed to be with the Kim Kardashians and the Britney Spears of the world: straight people who were extremely bad at marriage.  People who abused their kids and each other, people who were trapped in the cycle of addiction, people who were unfaithful, people who were unable or unwilling to be good parents, people who got married in elaborate weddings then divorced 72 days later, etc.
And none of those things applied to the committed gay couples I knew, people who were lined up, knocking down the doors of my church, asking to make public vows of fidelity and love to each other–the sort of thing my church preached was the sacramental self-sacrificial love that marriage signified.
And since that was the case, then why on earth not encourage these people to get married?
Well, she said, looking stormy.  Marriage isn’t about love.  It’s about children.  There are lots of different sorts of love, and lots of different sorts of relationships, but marriage is about producing and caring for children.
(……..Honestly.  I got nothing.)
That’s pretty much where it ended.
After it was over, several students unaffiliated with Canterbury came up to me and said how glad they were that I had asked my question.  The Catholic priest at the Newman Center came over, and said he was glad I had spoken up.  “I was waiting for someone to introduce the concept of real people into her speech.”
No kidding.
Look.
Theology always, ALWAYS involves real people.  Theology is never without consequences, and never exists in a bubble.
Stand in public, and proclaim that “marriage is about children, and not love” and immediately, you have sent the message that people who cannot have children, or choose not to, are not really married.
Stand up and say that biology, and not the courts, create a family, and now you’ve started casting doubt on the legitimacy of people who were adopted.  (Which, really, for a conservative Catholic– is quite a mind bender.)
And each time you say stuff like that, you’ve told people that there is something wrong with them.  You’ve told them that for some reason they may not be able to control, God is angry with them. God is seriously displeased with huge swaths of the population. “Horrible people!” God evidently says “Why can’t they live up to these impossible and unachievable standards that exist out here in the ether?”
By virtue of the Incarnation, if there is one thing in the cosmos God is concerned about, it’s actual people.  Not theories, not pretty dreams about what people should be, but actual, honest-to-Jesus, people.  People as they lived, and died, and celebrated and suffered.
Jesus called actual people to be disciples.  Peter, if you’ll note, was a complete doofus, albeit well-meaning, for much of his life.  Paul contradicted himself enough to rival a pretzel.  There were enough rough-and-tumble arguments in the nascent church to bring succor to the current watchers of the HoB/D listserv and England’s General Synod.  I’m not even going to go into the rumors and issues around the women Jesus hung around with.
The point is, he hung around with people.  Actual people.
His teaching served them; people weren’t meant to serve it.  (Wait, that sounds awfully familiar.)
The Spirit works through people.  Woe betide us when we stop paying attention.
*I’m not linking to her site.  You can Google “The Ruth Institute” if you want, but I’m not inclined to give this lady any more site views than she already has.  Aside from the many (MANY) issues I have with her espoused (ha!) policy positions, the irony is more than I can stand.  Their logo is virtually identical to that of Greendale Community College, of “Community” fame.  Really, I’ve not entirely written off the notion that we were all being punked.
**This is a song in my head now.  It is sung to the tune of “You’re making things up again, Arnold” from “The Book of Mormon.”  It is very catchy.  And features hobbits.  And Yoda.

Have a Carrot.

This week, in the morning, I was back in Holbrook.  They fed me chocolate cake and coffee, and told me stories about when their kids were younger, and lived in town, and went to church.  Now, they’ve all moved to Phoenix.  One is apparently dating a Cardinal!

In the afternoon, I did an “emergency animal blessing,” which is to say that I filled in at my friend’s church, since she had to fly back to the East Coast suddenly.  I was glad to do it–Animal blessings are common around St. Francis Day, in liturgically-minded churches,  and they are one of the perks of the priest-job.  Stand around outside on a pretty autumn day and pet dogs, cats, etc in the name of their Creator?  Yes, please.  And as this particular church has a healthy sense of fun about it, they had also provided ‘doggie snacks’ and animal games, complete with ‘doggie musical chairs.’  (God likes and endorses party games, including bowling, clearly.) Fun was had by everyone.

Clearly, I have an awesome job.

As a side note:  this parable from Matthew about drove me spare.  I appreciate this run of RESPECT MY AUTHORITY!!! parables we’ve been having between Jesus and the authorities in the Temple in their broader context, but come on, now.  Matthew’s supercessionist tendencies get old really quick, and short of taking a homiletic time out to disavow this, it’s difficult to deal with, week after week.

And here’s what I did end up saying.

October 9, 2011

Proper 23

Matthew 22:1-14

In the days since the death of Steve Jobs, there’s been a revival of

heaven jokes, heaven cartoons. And among them my favorite: A man dies,

and he goes to heaven. St. Peter says to him, “Hooray! We’re thrilled

you’re here, welcome to heaven, your eternal abode, let me show you

around so you can choose where you’d like to live.”

They first come to an elaborate banquet hall, filled with delicious

smells, and fine china, as cheerful people chatted happily and ate their fill.

“What’s this?” asked the man. “oh these are the Episcopalians,” said St.

Peter, “mind your manners, but they throw a good dinner party.”

Next they came to a raucous dance party. Even from a distance, they

could hear the music and the sound of people dancing and clapping.

“What on earth?!” asked the man. “Oh, these are the Baptists. They’re

happy they get to dance now. Takes a while for the thrill to wear off.”

Finally, the man had seen everyone there was to see, all the

inhabitants of heaven, everyone you could think of– all joyful and

celebrating.

Then, off to one side, the man was surprised to notice a stone

house, all boarded up, with a wall around it, and a large sign that said

“Quiet! Keep Out! “. He wandered up to it. “Who lives here?” he asked.

“Shhhh!” said St. Peter. “that’s Jerry Falwell’s house. It’s been in there for

years. He thinks he’s the only one up here.”

It’s a funny story. Funnier, certainly, than the parable for today. This is the

third parable about the kingdom of heaven from Matthew that we’ve gotten

in as many weeks, each with some sort of twist, each preached by Jesus

as he’s in the Temple during the last eel of his life. Now, granted, parables

are supposed to be surprising. As one New Testament scholar put it, a

parable is a story that is drawn from normal, everyday events that shocks

you just enough to make you think.

Which is fine, but this one shocks you all over the place. First there’s

this king who wants to give a wedding banquet. But no one will come;

everyone blows him off for various reasons, so he gets so angry that he

invades the local town, kills the population and burns it to the ground.

A slight overreaction, perhaps.

Still desperate for this party, he then decides to do a sort of all out dragnet

operation, and sends his army to the streets of the capital and collects

everyone they can find– young, old, rich, poor, whoever, and force them to

come. Because come hell or high water, this king is having a party, gosh

darn it.

This being accomplished, the poor king is then most distressed to

discover that one of his forced guests has shown up without a proper outfit

on. It’s like the guy doesn’t even realize he’s at a party. So frustrated by

this is the king that he throws him out.

Who, after all, shows up to a party and doesn’t realize they are at

one?

And what sort of king is that desperate to throw a party?

Parables, like I said, are meant to shock. That’s how they work.

Frustratingly, they aren’t meant to answer questions– they are meant to

provoke them, which is probably why Jesus was so very fond of them.

And they aren’t literal. Which is to say that Jesus wasn’t recounting the tale

of an actual king with anger management and party-planning issues, or

giving advice on how to plan events, or rule an actual city-state.

He was trying to communicate something true about the nature of God, and

the nature of humans, and the nature of our relationship to God.

So, then, in this parable, what is striking is a king who really, really wants to

celebrate. To give good things to whoever he can, wherever he can find

them. He’ll drag them in off the street if necessary.

And a people who can’t seem to receive them.

Shhh. He thinks he’s the only one here.

What keeps us from receiving the grace of God? What keeps us from

showing up, ready for the party? What keeps us from realizing we’re at

God’s party?

Frequently, we blame it on stubbornness, pride, or arrogance. This mainly

happens when we are looking at other people, though. Other people are

the ones who should just get over themselves!

I have a hunch, though, that more often, what holds us back is not pride–

it’s guilt and confusion. It’s our conviction that we aren’t possibly good

enough to receive anything this gracious from God. Why should God be

kind to us? We are hopeless cases! We mess up, even when we know

right from wrong! This is so far from what we deserve– surely there’s a

catch. Surely there’s another shoe that will fall right on top of our heads.

Because that’s the way the world works.

So we end up like the man at the feast, confused and speechless before a

God who just wants to love us.

The good news for us is that God doesn’t give up. God chases after us,

time and time again, despite everything we do, and despite our persistent

denial of our own worth. Over and over again, God assures us that we are

loved beyond imagining, and there is not a thing we can do about it.

Whether we feel we are up to it or not, we are stuck in the unending love of

God.

Its like that old children’s book called the Runaway Bunny. In it, a baby

rabbit tells his mother that he is tired of being a rabbit, so he’s going to run

away. He tells her he will become a fish in the stream, so she replies that

she will become a fisherman to catch him. Annoyed, he says he will

become a trapeze artist in the circus, and she returns that she will be a

tightrope walker, and catch him. On and on it goes– he’ll be a sailboat, and

she’ll be the wind to blow him home, etc. Finally he gives up. Well, I guess

I’ll just be your little bunny, then, he says. Ok, she says. Have a carrot.

God’s love and grace aren’t going anywhere, and eventually, they will win

even over our stubborn guilt and unworthiness. So let’s open our eyes,

open our doors, and enjoy the banquet prepared for us.

Amen.

Cliff Gardner gets a sermon

Oh yes.  And even though I didn’t preach at the morning services, I did preach at the 5:30 Canterbury service.

And to my never-ending delight, I FINALLY got to use this story that I’ve wanted to use in a sermon since about 2001.

Here’s to you, Cliff Gardner.  I can’t get you a Congressional Medal of Honor, but I can cite your brilliance in a sermon.

 

October 2, 2011

Proper 22, Ordinary Time Year A

Isaiah 5: 1-7

Matthew 21:33-46

 

Philo Farnsworth invented the television in Provo, Utah in 1927. And

by that, I don’t mean that he was like Jonny Carson, and was the first really

entertaining person to appear on the TV back in ye olden days of very little

mass entertainment. I mean that he invented the cathode ray tube, and a

method to project moving images across a distance to a receiver.

But he’s not the important person in this story.

The important person in this story is Cliff Gardner.

Cliff Gardner was Philo’s brother in law, and one day, as Philo was tinkering

around in his workshop, Cliff saw the drawings that he was working from.

Now Cliff was like pretty much everyone else in Provo– he had no idea

what Philo was on about much of the time. Electricity was brand new and

confusing.

But there was one thing in those plans he recognized as familiar– one thing

he could get a handle on– glass tubes.

So Cliff moved into Philo’s backyard and set up a glassblowing shop,

because he reckoned that this weird project was going to require an untold

amount of glass tubes.

And that was something that even he could do.

He could make glass  tubes.

And while he had no idea about how electricity worked, or how to send tv

signals through the air, doggone it, he could make glass tubes.

Not fancy, not showy, not memorable, but it was what he had to offer, and

so offer it he did.

 

There’s something heroic about that: this impulse to offer what one has,

even though we are convinced that it isn’t much, or we aren’t sure it will be

valued, or we aren’t in perfect control of the entire project.

There is something heroic about that, mainly because the alternative is so

very bleak.

 

We have two vineyards in the readings tonight. And though it’s vaguely

possible that among a lesser congregation, eyes might have glazed over,

and brains might have fogged with all the talk of grapes and tenants and

landlords, I know yours didn’t, so it’s not necessary for me to tell you that

they are described sort of similarly for a reason.

 

And it’s probable that Jesus, being up on his Law and his Prophets, knew

this Song of the Vineyard from Isaiah backwards and forwards, and that

what he’s recorded as doing in Matthew is retelling and reshaping the

passage to suit his own purposes. He’s proof-texting the Pharisees, in

other words. (Again, the writer of Matthew is in a bitter fight with fellow

members of the Jewish community, and it comes out here. Think of church

fights about music, about moving the altar away from the east wall.  It’s like that).

And in both vineyards, some of the same things are happening. There is a

landowner. He loves the vineyard. He loves it enough to build it on good

soil, to weed it properly, to install a well, and a guard tower (dangerous

grape thieves about, evidently), and to lease it to some tenants.

and here’s where we run into some trouble.

Because the tenants promptly forget, in both cases, that the vineyard isn’t

actually theirs.

 

And in the Matthean retelling, they even resort to a whole lot of

violence. Pretty presumptuous for some squatters.

They get so invested in tilling the soil, planting stuff, harvesting the grapes,

stomping out some wine, that when the landlord comes and asks for his

harvest, they are outraged. “How dare you presume to take our grapes!

We worked hard for this harvest!”

Which they did. Hard working tenant farmers.

But their problem is that they entirely forgot the point of their labor. The

vineyard was never theirs to begin with. It was given to them to care for

and to shepherd, not to hoard. They didn’t build the protection wall, they

didn’t dig the well, they didn’t even send the rain or fertilize the soil. Here

was this wonderful garden, given as a gift. The question then becomes,

what will those who are given this gift do with it? Will they be good

stewards, or will they forget, and keep all the bounty for themselves?

It’s a fairly easy trap to fall into, this sort of amnesia, and it doesn’t really

matter what the ‘vineyard’ is. We start thinking that all the good things we

have are OURS! And OURS ALONE, through the virtue of our hard work

and dedication!

But really, nothing is ever that simple.

For example, my father is a rather good basketball player. Played college

ball, won the ACC tournament, went to the NIT, played pro in Europe,

drafted by the Celtics. And I could make the argument that he did all that

because he practiced free throws in the driveway as a kid, and worked

hard, and never gave up and was his own never-ending Disney movie.

 

Which would be true to some extent, but it would be overlooking the fact

that he had incredibly supportive parents, who could afford to send him to

college, the sort of college that wins stuff, a high school coach who took an interest in him, and most of all,

the fact that he grew up in a family of small giants, all of whom are over 6 ft

tall.

None of us live in a vacuum. We are products of communities, and

products of history, and products of context, every one of us. In a sense,

we are all landlords to each other.

But most of all, we are tenants to God. Every step, every breath of air on

this fragile goldilocks planet is done at the whim of the God who gave it life.

Our very being is the slimmest chance in a universe full of long shots, and

when we lose sight of that, we start to forget that we are tenants at all.

So for all of us tenant farmers down here, my question to you is this: look around you. What is your harvest going to be?  And who will you give it to?