Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Life That Wants To Live In You

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Mark 8:27-38

O God, may your Living Word be present in the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, in our liturgy and in our lives. Amen.

Reflecting upon the relationship between who we are and what we do, the Quaker teacher Parker Palmer asks the following question: "Is the life you are living the same as the Life that wants to live in you?" It is a provocative and, perhaps, frightening question; especially when we recall that it is indeed all too easy to gain the whole world and yet forfeit one's life in the process. Our Gospel lesson today invites us to consider this all-important question, "Is the life you are living the same as the Life that wants to live in you?"

It is possible to live a life other than the one that God intends for us. It does not require a tremendous leap of imagination to consider this possibility. We see the evidence of it all around us, most tellingly in our own lives, if we can bear to look honestly at ourselves. I know there are times in my own life when the life I am living is not the Life that wants to live in me, times when the persona I am projecting bears no relation to my true self, the Christ within me who is the divine source of life and love in the very depths of creation. It is this same Christ who is the Life who wants to live in you, too. But is that the Life we choose? Is that the Life that comes to expression in our daily lives?

Not long after I was ordained I had lunch with a parishioner named Gene. I happened to arrive at the restaurant early and secured a table for us. I was sitting looking outside for Gene, when I noticed him walking by looking in. I must have been invisible, because he walked right by and stood outside the door as if he were waiting for me. So I walked outside and told him that I was there and had gotten us a table. He hadn't expected me to be dressed in civilian clothes and said with a twinkle in his eye, "Oh, I didn't see you, I was looking for a collar!" I laughed and replied half-jokingly, "I guess I'm just a collar to you now, rather than a person."

Now, I know that Gene sees me as more than "just a collar," and I know that my priesthood is an intrinsic part of my identity -- it is in fact one way that God has called me to give expression to the Life that lives in me. It is about who I am and not simply what I do. But it is tempting at times for all of us to confuse the Life within us with the roles that we play -- the role of priest, or teacher, or lawyer, or doctor, or reporter, or retiree, or parent, or partner. These may give expression to the Life within us, but they may also become a false self, a mere persona that is cut-off from the Christ in us. We are so much more than the roles we play, and those roles must serve as ways to express our true humanity; otherwise, they must be rejected.

When Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" Peter responded with a list of roles, cultural scripts, familiar figures to the people of his time. The answers, "John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets," were not bad or wrong; they were just woefully incomplete. There certainly was something of each of these religious figures in Jesus, but he was not reducible to any of them. It is easy for us to want to identify others and even ourselves with a cultural or family role and to follow and impose on others the expectations that go along with them. This is perhaps the easiest way to live a life other than our own, sacrificing our uniqueness on the altar of conformity, social acceptance, and denial of our authentic humanity.

Jesus will have none of this, so he asks another question of his disciples. "Who do you say that I am?" Surely his closest companions, his dearest friends will really appreciate his true identity and vocation. Heretofore in Mark's Gospel, the disciples have not been very savvy in this regard, so it is surprising that Peter gets it right. "You are the Messiah, the Christ," he says. But does he really understand? Jesus quickly and firmly tells his disciples not to reveal this to anyone.

It is a fearful thing, a vulnerable thing, to reveal the Life that wants to live in us. It can be easily misunderstood, even rejected. So it was for Jesus. He speaks quite plainly to his disciples about the relationship between his identity as the Christ and his vocation: suffering, rejection, death -- and only then the glory of resurrection. Peter hits upon the truth of who Jesus is and immediately wants to distort that truth beyond recognition. "What a minute," says Peter, "this is not what being the Christ is supposed to be about. This isn't what I bargained for. You can't expect people to believe this. In short, you can't be who you were created to be!"

How often have you heard those words spoken to you in one way or another! How many of my colleagues were told as girls that women can't be priests? How often have we been told that gay men and lesbians can never find true love and happiness? To what extent in your life has some deep truth about your self been discounted, distorted, or forced to die to preserve someone else's ideas about who you should be? Aren't you ready for that true self to be resurrected?

Our answer to such abuse should be the same as Jesus': "Get behind me Satan!" We were not made to conform to any image, whether of our own or someone else's creation, other than that of the image of God within us. No human concept is our rule of life or arbiter of our destiny, but only the divine image, the Christ within us, that comes to expression in our lives when we realize and honor our genuine humanity.

Our vocation, our life's work, is to discover the ways in which our lives are to give unique expression to the Christ in us.

Today's Gospel is not only about Jesus' true identity and vocation; it is about ours as well. The Christ that was absolutely, perfectly, and ultimately realized in him is the same Christ that is partially, imperfectly, and proleptically realized in us. I suspect this is why Peter is so resistant to Jesus' revelation about his true identity and vocation, because it forced Peter to die to the life he was living so that the Life that wanted to live in him could be born. Peter, the militant Jew who would have Jesus be the victorious warrior-king restoring the might of Israel against her Gentile enemies, would become the first Jewish Christian to preach the Gospel of peace and reconciliation between Jew and Gentile. And it was this same Peter who himself would die a martyr's death on his own cross.

Being one's true self, dying to the false self of family and culture and religion, so that Christ can be born in us, is never easy and is always full of risk. I'm not talking here about self-realization or the kind of self-preoccupation that refuses to acknowledge the needs of others and our obligations to them, so rampant in a culture marked by individualism and consumerism. Jesus told his disciples, "If you want to follow me, take up your cross right now. The self-giving love, the generosity, the compassion, and the joy that are my way," says Jesus, "will scare some people enough to make them want to kill you.”

Why? Because our freedom in Christ will undermine the world they have so carefully constructed to defend themselves against their own humanity and protect their unjust privilege. They cannot afford our revealing the lie that the world they have gained isn't worth the Life they have refused to allow to live in them.

"So take up your cross now; take up whatever fears you have about the true self God has created you to be; and live into and through those fears. Do not be afraid. I am with you; I am in you; and you are in me," says this Jesus the Christ. "We are one as the Father and I are one. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it."

What in you must die so that this Life can be born in you? What fear is keeping you from trusting that there is resurrection on the other side of that death?

Is the life you are living the same as the Life that wants to live in you?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Day After

I have to admit that I have avoided Nine Eleven commemoration like the plague. The events of that day, horrible beyond imagining, have been so distorted for political purposes in the aftermath that it is difficult to see the human tragedy behind the propoganda. What is more, we can no longer see the tragedy of Nine Eleven in isolation, without acknowledging the far more destructive tragedy that subsequently unfolded in Afghanistan and Iraq. These events are all of a piece, part of a spiral of violence that has engulfed the world, deeply challenging us to locate our security in a faith that eschews mimetic violence, retaliation, and scapegoating.

My friend Elizabeth Kaeton, who serves a parish in Chatham, New Jersey, comes as close as anyone to peeling back the onion of post-9-11 political posturing to expose the rawness of the actual experience. I commend her reflection on Nine Eleven with thanksgiving.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Treasures of the Church

Sermon Preached at St. John the Evangelist, San Francisco
RCL, Proper 18: James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? Amen. James 2:1-5

Exactly one month ago today we celebrated the feast of St. Laurence. Laurence was chief of the seven deacons of the congregation at Rome, who were in charge of administering the church budget, particularly with regard to the care of the poor. In the year 257, the emperor Valerian began a persecution aimed chiefly at the clergy and the laity of the upper classes. All Church property was confiscated and meetings of Christians were forbidden. The bishop of Rome, Sixtus II, and most of his clergy were executed on 7 August 258, and Laurence on 10 August.

Later accounts report that the Roman prefect, knowing that Laurence was the financial officer, promised to set him free if he would surrender the wealth of the Church. Laurence agreed, but said that it would take him three days to gather it. During those three days, he placed all the money at his disposal in the hands of trustworthy friends, and then assembled the sick, the aged, and the poor, the widows and orphans of the congregation, presented them to the prefect, and said, "These are the treasures of the Church."

“These are the treasures of the Church.” St. Laurence, good deacon that he was, refused to allow the Church to become hostage to the agenda of the rich and the powerful. Laurence protected the Church’s wealth, not to maintain the status and privilege of the upper classes, but because it was vital to the well being of the poor in his community. He knew that if the Roman Empire confiscated the Church’s wealth, it would be the poor, the Church’s true treasure, who would suffer most. He gave his very life to demonstrate the truth of Jesus’ teaching that where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Where do we find our treasure? Do we find it in the faces of the poor? Do we see our neighbors who may be less well off than us as assets, or as liabilities? The letter of James and the life of St. Laurence challenge us to follow Jesus in refusing to make self-serving distinctions between rich and poor, choosing instead to welcome each and all as priceless treasures whose presence will enrich our lives in unexpected ways. It is only as we stretch ourselves to include those who are different from us, those who may in fact make us very uncomfortable, that we come to trust that our security is rooted in God’s eternal love, and not in our wealth or social status.

Here we touch on what I think is a very important spiritual truth: we desperately need each other, with all our surprising, and frustrating, and sometimes incomprehensible differences, in order to begin to understand something of the wonder and dignity of our humanity. The Church is called to become an evermore inclusive community; not because it is a moral obligation, or politically correct, or condescendingly chic (as if we could become fashionably spiritual by being seen receiving communion with poor people – or with rich people, for that matter). The Church is called to be a radically inclusive community because we need each other to become truly holy: to become whole, integrated, fully human.

When we acknowledge the humanity of those who challenge us or make us uncomfortable, we also begin to accept the broken, painful, “unacceptable” parts of ourselves that we tend to suppress or project on to others. In this process of mutual mirroring of our humanity for each other, allowing ourselves to see and integrate aspects of our humanity that we previously rejected, we discover that we have far greater resources for enlarging our sense of human and Christian community than we thought. This is difficult, sometimes even painful work, forcing us to stretch ourselves well beyond our comfort zone.

This is what Jesus discovered in his encounters with the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man in today’s gospel story. Jesus had gone out ahead of his disciples into the region of Tyre and the Decapolis: into Gentile country. He left behind the safety and familiarity of the Jewish world and mission in which he had been operating. While there, Jesus initially went into hiding, slipping into the house where he was staying and hoping that no one would notice him.

I think there may be an uncomfortable parallel here between Jesus and St. John’s. Here we find ourselves, mostly (though not exclusively) white, middle-class, middle aged gay and lesbian people – people like me – in a region, a neighborhood of people who are mostly not like us: darker skinned, poorer, younger, and straighter. It is very tempting to slip into this house on Sunday mornings and hope that nobody notices us. At least, it would make life a lot less complicated if that were the case.

But the gospel tells us that Jesus could not escape notice. Perhaps it was his very difference from those around him that made him stick out. Perhaps people were curious about what he was doing there. Perhaps they thought that they might have something to offer each another.

At any rate, Jesus is immediately challenged by a Gentile woman who crashes the party and presses every one of his buttons. She is persistent. Maybe Jesus doesn’t want to be noticed, but she will not be ignored. Her daughter’s need is too great and her faith is too firmly fixed to be put off.

But Jesus tries to put her off anyway. First, he insists that his mission is reserved for people like him: to fellow Jews. He has come to feed God’s children, not Gentile dogs. And secondly, there isn’t enough to go around for both the Gentiles and the Jews. “If I feed these dogs,” thinks Jesus, “the children will go hungry.”

Isn’t this the fear that we all share? Don’t we tend to operate with a model of scarcity: there isn’t enough time, enough money, enough love, to share with “those people.” What about me and my needs! Before you know it, they’ll have power and start changing things! What about my status and security! Suddenly, those who are unlike us aren’t simply different – they are a threat.

“Ah,” says the Syrophoenician woman, “but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Her compassion for her daughter compels Jesus to acknowledge her humanity. Her need is just as real as that of any Jew, and equal in its claim upon him. What is more, her Gentile faith exceeds his own. Where Jesus worries about limitations, she insists there is enough: if we are but willing to share with each other. Suddenly, the distinctions that Jesus thought were so important, so worrisome, no longer seem to matter.

Jesus is in the process of discovering that his mission of healing, his conception of humanity, must become far larger and more inclusive than he had initially imagined. He begins with what he knows and with those who are familiar to him, but he can not stop there. Through a process of risk and encounter with the “other,” he must learn more fully what it means for us to be God’s beloved children.

Thus Jesus should not be surprised when another Gentile, a deaf man unable to speak well, turns out to be capable of hearing the word of God and sharing it with others more effectively than his own disciples. He comes to Jesus for healing, yet in turn offers an equally remarkable gift for sharing the good news of God’s healing love. And so Jesus’ mission of forgiveness, hospitality and healing is multiplied in ways that he could never have accomplished had he remained hidden in the house.

My sisters and brothers, Jesus is inviting us this morning to come out of hiding and join him in expanding our sense of mission. We are called to risk encountering those whose differences will challenge us and change us in ways we can’t anticipate or control. We are invited into this risky venture, not because we are in possession of Jesus and need to share him with others. Jesus has already gone before us, and in welcoming the stranger, we will find ourselves meeting Jesus again for the first time. In so doing, we will grow in acceptance and love of humanity, both ours and others’. And we will be saved.

When St. Laurence presented the Church’s treasures to the Roman prefect, he became so outraged that he ordered him to be roasted alive on a gridiron. Laurence bore the torture with great calmness, saying to his executioners at one point, "You may turn me over; I am done on this side." (Laurence strikes me as a rather campy saint!) The spectacle of his courage made a great impression on the people of Rome, and made many converts, while greatly reducing among pagans the belief that Christianity was a socially undesirable movement that should be stamped out.[i]

Nothing could better reveal to the world the truth and sincerity of our faith, than our willingness to embrace the poor, the sick, the broken hearted – all of the suffering humanity that we reject in ourselves and in others – as the Church’s true treasure. If we are but willing to let go of our fear, our selfish preoccupations, our false superiority, we will find ourselves gaining nothing less than our true humanity as we join with Jesus in God’s great project of healing the world. Amen.

[i] Hagiagraphy of Laurence found at

Friday, September 8, 2006

Newark Prepares to Elect a Bishop

The Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton reports that turnout for the "Meet the Candidates" events in Newark is high, the energy is positive, and the candidates engaged and engaging. Five priests and one bishop have been nominated for bishop of Newark; including one, the Rev. Cn. Michael Barlowe, who is an openly partnered gay man. Michael is the Congregational Development Officer for our diocese, and his partner, The Rev. Paul Burrows, is one of our finest parish priests. They, the other nominees & their families, and the people of Newark, are very much in my prayers.

Newark finds itself in an awkward position post-Columbus, where this summer the General Convention of the Episcopal Church effectively called for a moratorium on the consecration of gay men or lesbians as bishops. This means that the people of Newark must contemplate the possibility of electing someone who would not receive consent from a majority of the diocesan bishops and Standing Committees. They must weigh whether or not they wish to cast their vote based on the Spirit's prompting, or on calculations of "consentability." I trust they will choose the former.

Based on my experience of General Convention, in which the bishops and deputies displayed little courage in the face of ecclesiastical coercion, I think it quite possible that Michael would not receive consent if he were elected. I hope I'm wrong - it wouldn't be the first time! But if the people of Newark really believe he should be their next bishop, they should vote for him regardless of whether or not he might receive consent. If consent is denied, Michael's election would make visible the wound inflicted upon the Body of Christ in Columbus. That would not necessarily be a bad thing, especially for the "good liberals" who voted for B033.

That isn't a reason to vote for Michael. But neither is it a reason to vote against him. Folks in Newark should vote as they feel moved by the Spirit in conversation with one another. Their focus sould be on mission in their context, and who of these six called by God can best lead them in that mission. Which is why Michael was nominated to begin with; not because he is gay, but because he is so well qualified.

Some would say that Columbus has "politicized" the Newark election. The truth is that episcopal elections are ALWAYS political. That is as it should be. The question is, "Will our politics be moral? Will our politics reflect our loyalty to Christ as Lord?" Columbus has raised the cost of moral courage. That is an unfair burden to place on Newark or any diocese, but there it is. Those of us who seek to do justice and love mercy must stand in solidarity with Newark in their hour of testing, rejoicing with them and their next bishop: whoever she or he may be.

Saturday, September 2, 2006

A View From Across The Pond

Speaking of Hegelian Dialectics ...

The Church of England is currently being tortured by a dead German philosopher. An unlikely story, I know. But not when you recall that the head of the Anglican church is a former Oxford don with a deep love of Hegel. And it's partly because of Hegel - specifically Rowan Williams's commitment to Hegelian dialectics - that morale in the Church of England is so low.

For those who didn't spend hours in the student bar plotting the overthrow of global capitalism, it may be worth a recap. The dialectic proposes that human culture advances through a serious of oppositions. A thesis is opposed by its opposite, an antithesis, which is then taken up into a synthesis of the two, shifting culture into a whole new territory. Here is Dr Williams's explanation: "Reflection requires that the plain opposition of positive and negative be left behind. Thinking is not content with the abstraction of mutual exclusivities, but struggles to conceive of a structured wholeness nuanced enough to contain what appeared to be contradictories."

The Canterbury dialectic was in evidence at a summit of bishops who were considering whether they should remain a boys' club. It works like this. Take someone who believes that women ought to be bishops. Take someone who believes women ought not to be bishops. Put them in a room with flip charts and shake them all about, and you come out with a synthesis. Or a structured wholeness nuanced enough to contain what appeared to be contradictories. But you don't. What really happens is that you come up with a bodge and a room full of very angry Christians, exhausted by the politics of eternal negotiation.

Following Hegel, the archbishop believes that all oppositions can be nuanced into resolution. It's a matter of faith for him. The dialectic describes the path a divided humanity must travel if it is to reach the good infinity, the kingdom of heaven. It's the way of personal and social transformation under which all human conflict will come to an end. The lion will lie down with the lamb.

Long before Hegel drew breath, Anglicanism has always had something of Hegel about it. After all, the genius of the Church of England is to create a synthesis of Catholics (thesis) and Puritans (antithesis). But whereas historic Anglicanism believed that compromise between different theologies was a price worth paying for a truce between them, Dr Williams's dialectical Anglicanism is an encouragement to war.

For dialectical Anglicanism just cannot say no. Every no always comes with its attendant yes. And that means, it can't resist the bigotry, sexism and homophobia that is currently making a nasty comeback in the Anglican pulpit. Whether it be those who would treat women clergy as second class or those who compare gay Christians to beasts, the logic of Dr Williams' position is always to accommodate. Commendably inclusive, some presume. But this sort of inclusivity offers little protection against those who would undermine the tolerance that has been the Anglican trademark. When dealing with well-organised and well-motivated bullies, it's a hopeless philosophy.

Worse still, the dialectical quest for unity is callously indifferent to the casualties of its grand plan. Isaiah Berlin was right to call the dialectic "a sinister mythology which authorises the infinite sacrifice of individuals to such abstractions as states, traditions or the destiny of the nation" - or, one might add, to the unity of the church. Even Hegel admitted that the dialectic is a "slaughter-bench" on which the welfare of individuals is counted as collateral damage. Isn't that precisely what happened to Jeffrey John?

But the saddest casualty of Hegel's system of reconciliation is the archbishop himself. Holding all these opposites in tension is grinding him down. He presents as Christ on the cross, taking upon himself the pain of the church's division. Each new fight is a spear in the side, yet he continues to maintain faith in the reconciling process of nuance. If he's right, it's a work of supreme Christian sacrifice. If he's wrong, all this pain will have been for nothing.

by Giles Fraser
Vicar of Putney
Saturday June 17, 2006
The Guardian

Friday, September 1, 2006

Vacation Hiatus

Rosarito Beach, Mexico (view from our hotel)

I'm currently on vacation through Labor Day, and have been "busy" lying on the beach in Mexico and spending time with my family. It has been wonderfully relaxing. I'm reminded of the wisdom of Sabbath rest and the sabbatical cycle: having "down time" on a daily, weekly, monthly, and annual basis. Most of us, including me, could be far more intentional about our Sabbath practice.

I've spent a LOT less time on the computer and a lot more time reading during the past two weeks, and that has had a salutory effect as well. My vacation reading list included a funny, thoughtful novel, That Old Ace in the Hole, by Annie Proulx (of Brokeback Mountain and The Shipping News fame). It paints a vivid picture of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, the sometimes humorous struggle to discern vocation, and the political and environmental controversy surrounding factory livestock farming.

Rereading a collection of Archbishop Rowan Williams' essays in On Christian Theology has also been very interesting, especially in light of the Archbishop's most recent media event. While his interview with the Nederlands Dagblad has garnered a great deal of commentary, I have the sense that a lot of heat, but little light, has been generated. A careful reading of Williams' dense (and often brilliant) theological prose provides a more dependable guide to his theological perspective and understanding of his office.

In short: Williams isn't the homophobe some have painted him on the basis of his recent statements, but he is clear that the current crisis in Anglicanism is due to a lack of agreement about what constitutes holiness. For Williams, holiness is the touchstone for the unity of Christian truth: the narrative unity of holy lives patterned after Christ is the manifestation of Christian truth. Thus, for him, securing unity about the nature of holiness is paramount. The risk, of course, is the sacrifice of honesty in the pursuit of a unity based on prejudice. Can gay and lesbian Christians be holy? That is the question before the Anglican Communion. I hope to write more about this later.

One assigned book that I've read was Bill Countryman's Living on the Borders of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All. This reflection on the nature of Christian vocation, lay and ordained, will be the focus of discussion at our diocesan clergy conference later this month. I highly recommend the book, especially for those serving on congregational vocation committees and diocesan committees on ministry. It is invaluable in sorting out the relationship between lay and ordained ministry and a helpful antidote to our tradition's clericalism. As it turns out, Countryman's comments on priesthood and purity, read against Williams' concerns about holiness, are mutually illuminating and corrective.

Peter Galbraith's The End of Iraq rounds out my reading with a timely look at the Bush Administration's disasterous occupation policy in Iraq. It is a scathing indictment of the arrogance and incompetence that have marked this failed attempt at nation building, resulting in a brutal civil war. Galbraith's argues that the only possibility for long-term stability is the partition of Iraq into autonomous Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite states, essentially undoing British colonial policy that imposed a unified state on what had been historically distinct communities.

I'd be interested in hearing what books you've been reading this summer. I hope you've taken some well-deserved sabbatical time too.