Friday, December 29, 2006
Of course, such divisions are part of the warp and woof of the history of the Church, including its tendancies toward imperialism or, at least, its willingness to benefit from the imperialism of the dominant culture in which it is embedded; our own Anglican Communion is hardly unique in that regard. Imperialism necessarily gives rise to division and opposition, and that is certainly being played out in the post-colonial churches of the Anglican Communion.
It seems to me that one lesson those of us of a more "liberal" persuasion might learn from our "evangelical" sisters and brothers, is the importance of developing personal and institutional relationships rooted in shared faith and witness with Global South Anglicans. I wonder if the current impasse isn't rooted, in part, in the failure of "liberal" congregations, dioceses, and the national Episcopal Church to develop shared missionary ties with the churches of the Global South (and, as Archbishop Barahona, the Primate of Central America, reminds us, the Global Center, which doesn't always share the perspective of the Global South). Our "evangelical" sisters and brothers have been more effective at building international relationships and defining us "liberals" as heretics in the process, than we have been at building direct relationships ourselves.
It is time for that to change. I hope it isn't too late.
Friday, December 22, 2006
Last week, I participated in a Washington Post real-time online chat about divisions in the Episcopal Church around issues of church politics, sexual identity, and biblical interpretation - a combustible combination that I typically try to avoid. But the Post offered me a chance to explain contemporary change in religious communities and I saw it as an opportunity to help people see some important shifts that are happening around us.
Many people - including most of last week's questioners - assume that the Episcopal Church is engaged in an argument between two religious parties: liberals and conservatives. I have long doubted the wisdom of two-party paradigms, believing that two-party analyses primarily serve the interest of partisanship. In the chat, I responded to one participant with the following:
I do not believe that there are only two sides in this dispute - I can identify five distinct groups.
Yes, there are two parties in tension: Old-line liberals and radicalized conservatives. This is the fight we most often read about in the media. However, you point out a third possibility, a centrist party that is trying to navigate between the two extremes. The extremes aren't the whole story.
However, there are two additional groups, and these two are far less noticed. I refer to these groups (they don't have a clear "party" identity) as "progressive pilgrims" and "emergent conservatives. " These two groups tend to see "issues" like this one as secondary concerns to the practice of Christian faith and are more concerned with things like hospitality, living forgiveness, practicing reconciliation, learning to pray, feeding the hungry, caring for the environment, and maintaining the Anglican practice of comprehensiveness (being a church of the "middle way"). They may lean slightly left or slightly right on "issues," but reject partisan solutions to theological problems. Both progressive pilgrims and emergent conservatives are far more interested in unity than uniformity, and they appreciate diversity in their congregations as a sign of God's dream for humanity to live in peace.
These comments are about much more than the Episcopal Church or any single issue. They are observations about the emergence of new tendencies and groupings in American religion. These groups are not some mushy middle of conflict-avoidant people. Rather, they are new positive expressions of religious identity going beyond the old definitions of liberal and conservative.
Centrists exist as a moderating group between the old partisan divides, seeking to find healthy, creative space for the common good. The two relatively new groups, the "progressive pilgrims" and "emergent conservatives" represent post-liberal and post-conservative alternatives to the older parties. These groups are not identical, but they share some common tendencies. All three attempt to resist the radical politicization that has marked American denominations since World War II while trying to reground the church on spiritual practice, serious engagement with scripture, and generous Christian tradition. They reject old arguments, old policies, old stereotypes, and old ways of doing business.
As I said in the Post chat:
If the centrists, the progressive pilgrims, and emergent conservatives can come together and offer their distinctive spiritual gifts in the midst of this conflict, I think the Episcopal Church may be able to move forward.
If these groups forge friendships, finding fellow walkers on other paths, it would do more than change the Episcopal Church - it could change both our national religious and political conversations.
In the last year, it has become increasingly clear that Sojourners is serving as one of the places where these three groups come together around practicing justice - and learning to appreciate and hear one another's perspectives. Opening space for new conversation changes conversation. And offering new paradigms for seeing what is happening in the world around us opens our imaginations to creative solutions and new possibilities as we seek to enact God's dream for humankind.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
At the same time, President Bush confirmed yesterday his intentions to increase the size of the standing army and marine corps, recognizing that the military isn't capable of meeting the multiple demands currently being placed upon it.
My concern, as Iraq continues to spiral downward, is that the administration will expand the War on Terror to Iran, seeking to shut down its support for sectarian violence in Iraq and elsewhere. Is this naval deployment, and the call for an expanded military, the first steps in that direction? Or is that too much to expect a lameduck president facing a Congress controlled by the opposition to be able to pull off? I'm not ready to underestimate the imperial ambitions of this administration.
Now, more than ever, it is time for the peace movement in the United States and abroad to accelerate the pressure for an end to the War on Terror, which is a self-perpetuating dynamic of violence feeding violence. With public support for the war at an all time low, a new Congress coming into office, and increasing casualties, we have an opportunity through nonviolent witness to make a difference in the world. End the occupation. End torture. Restore a sense of honor and decency to our nation for the sake of the world.
May our prayer be that of the angels, "Peace on earth and goodwill to all people."
Thursday, December 14, 2006
It is imperative, therefore, that efforts by governments and NGOs, including churches, to alleviate global human suffering bear in mind that success requires addressing the cultural as well as economic barriers to human flourishing. In this, the Anglican Communion has a vital role to play, especially on behalf of women and increasingly (though controversially) on behalf of gay and lesbian people. This is a difficult challenge, fraught with the danger of new (old) forms of imperialism. Yet, the challenge must be creatively and patiently addressed, for the end of global poverty and the emancipation of women are intrinsically related.
This is why the U.N. Millenium Development goals include achieving universal primary education for children (including girls), promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, and improving maternal health. Women are always the thin edge of the wedge of human liberation. As it goes with women, so it goes for LGBT people in particular. The election of the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church provides a powerful symbol of hope and an opportunity to link the cultural and economic aspects of the churches' responsibility to minister to "the least of these. "
Monday, December 11, 2006
A sermon for Advent 2.
“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God . . . For God will lead
Both the reading from Baruch and the reading from Luke that we heard this morning refer to yet another text: the Word of the Lord spoken to the prophet Isaiah.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to
Isaiah speaks these words of comfort to a people suffering in exile in
This vision of homecoming is appropriated by Baruch more than three hundred years later, after the return of the exiles to
Thus, the promise of homecoming must be renewed: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory of God!” This promise was fulfilled, in part, by the Maccabean revolt against
Then, along came the
Not long afterward, Luke’s Gospel appeared conveying the message of yet another prophet, John the Baptizer, who once again appropriates Isaiah’s promise of homecoming for his own time and place. John begins to gather a new community that is preparing for the renewal of
Do you see a pattern here? Exile and return, occupation and liberation, alienation and homecoming: this seems to be the way of the world. It isn’t merely a long ago and far away story. It is our story. It is the story of millions of refugees around the world: Palestinians, Sudanese, Iraqis, Afghanis, fleeing occupied territories they long to reclaim as home. It is the story of brave
It is the story of a young transgender woman with whom I met recently, in exile here from her homeland in the Southern United States, alienated from her family and afraid that they will attempt to have her institutionalized. She grieves the home she has lost even as she wonders if it is possible to make a home here. It is the story of an anonymous meth addict, who locked himself in our garden bathroom last Sunday afternoon and refused to leave, all the while trying to inject himself, leaving behind a broken needle, a blood splattered room, and a hole in the door that matched the hole in his soul; a God-shaped hole that no amount of drugs can fill. How many exiles like him wander our neighborhood?
We are all characters in the story of exile and return. Sometimes the home for which we long is a place on a map; sometimes find ourselves exiled from the landscape of our own heart. Too often, we live in exile from both. We long to come home to our people, to our family, to our self. Even more, we long to come home to God, in whom we find our true and lasting rest.
Thus, we find ourselves here again in the season of Advent, listening to the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “O God, make a way for us to come home again. Let us, all of us, see your salvation. We’re tired of wrapping ourselves in threadbare garments of sorrow and affliction. Dress us instead in the beauty of your presence, in the warmth of your peace and justice, in the splendor of your compassion and forgiveness. Please, please, dear God, bring us home again.”
We will continue to play out the pattern of exile and return, until all of us accept that our liberation, our homecoming, our national and personal security, can not be established by Cyrus, or Caesar, or whoever the current emperor may be; it can not be secured by Maccabees or American revolutionaries, or religious terrorists (not all of whom are Muslim; indeed, some wear purple); it can only be secured by the Messiah who practiced nonviolent love, the Compassionate One who is coming again, and again, and again, for as long as it takes until we all come home.
We have seen this Messiah, the Christ, in Jesus, who came not as emperor or terrorist, not as executioner or victim, but simply as a human being. His presence continues in the new community of those seeking to follow his way of becoming fully human, so that the fullness of God may dwell among us as it did in him. He has come to show us the way home by making his home in us, that no matter where we are, we may be clothed with the glory of God and the robe of justice.
It is time to take off the garment of sorrow and affliction. It is time for us to repent of our clinging to the false security offered by the world and its continuous cycle of exile and return. It is time for us to renounce our identification with powerlessness and with privilege. It is time to come home to our full humanity in Christ, who has made his home with us.
This is the renunciation, the repentance, to which John the Baptizer calls us. It was symbolized this week by our bishop, Marc, who called us to walk with him on the path of peace that leads us home. On Thursday, a couple hundred of us marched with him down from the privilege of Nob Hill, through the powerlessness of the Tenderloin, to embrace our humanity and protest the injustice of the War on Terror in the courtyard of the Empire.
In celebrating the Eucharist in the plaza of the
When we are at home in the Christ who makes his home in us, the fear and greed and revenge that drive the cycle of exile and return loses its hold on us. We then discover the creativity to resist evil through nonviolent love, the capacity to be at home even in a foreign land, and the passion to welcome others home too. This is the good news of the Gospel, that we who are in exile can return home once and for all.
The cycle of continual exile has been broken. We no longer have to participate in its destructive and divisive power. The welcome feast has been prepared and a place at the table has been set for you. It’s time to come home. Amen.
Friday, December 8, 2006
The entire march, liturgy, and civil disobedience were marked by joyful solemnity and a spirit of nonviolence. It was a wonderful opportunity for people from around the diocese to act together in faithful witness of the Prince of Peace to whom we give our ultimate allegiance. It was also good to do so with Jewish, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Quaker and humanist sisters and brothers who share our commitment to justice, peace, and nonviolence. None of us ceased being who we were; we were not reduced to an imaginary generic humanity, sans tradition or history. Yet, for a few hours, we were able to speak with one voice for an end to this unjust and brutal war.
Episcopal News Service and Civic Center also provide good coverage of the requiem Eucharist and protest, including SFMike's picture of my family celebrating the Eucharist.
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
I was very moved by the participation of the congregation in the healing rite. Almost everyone came forward for prayer and anointing. We too easily forget the heavy burdens many still carry in the age of AIDS.
On Saturday morning, we joined our diocesan family at Grace Cathedral for the ordination of 15 priests and 5 deacons. Among them was the Rev. Jeff Donnelly, who was sponsored for Holy Orders by our parish. Fr. Jeff is pictured here just before saying his first mass on Sunday morning at St. John's. I was struck by the aptness of the homily at the ordination liturgy, which was preached by Dr. Rod Dugliss, dean of our diocesan School for Deacons. Rod spoke of the need for ministry to be grounded in an inner disposition of compassion and joy: broken hearts, and hearts on fire. The greatest temptations we face as ministers of the Gospel are to harden our hearts, becoming defended from the suffering of the world, or to allow the flame of holy love to die out, becoming joyless in our service to others.
These are certainly temptations with which I struggle in ordained ministry. Serving an inner city neighborhood is challenging. On top of everything else this weekend, we celebrated a service of Advent Lessons and Carols on Saturday night, beginning our preparation for the Mystery of Christmas with an inspirational and evocative medley of music, scripture, and poetry. It was beautiful and moving.
And then Sunday after mass and a meeting, READY to go home, I discovered that a man had locked himself in the bathroom. He would not respond, so I called the police and waited outside for the officer to arrive. Eventually, the man emerged, with a syringe clenched between his teeth, and strolled off down the sidewalk. I locked the gate, went back inside, and discovered the bathroom a wreck: blood all over the walls and floor from this meth addicts attempts to inject himself. Soiled paper towels and cigarette butts all around. I locked the bathroom door (which one enters directly from our garden) and prepared to go back inside the church.
Suddenly, the man returned, hauling himself over the garden wall, screaming about having left his wallet in the bathroom. I was frightened, worried that he might still have the needle with him, and fled out the back gate. By the time the police officer arrived, he had kicked in the bathroom door, recovered his wallet and left. I was shaken. I filed a police report and went home. I returned on Monday and wiped the blood off the walls as best I could, and disposed of the broken needle that was the immediate cause of the mess.
I was and am struggling with feelings of anger and fear. My heart wants to be defended, rather than broken open in compassion: for both this addict and myself. A good and wise friend pointed out to me that this meth addict already has one foot in the grave. He is not someone with whom I would wish to trade places. Yet, he, too, is a beloved one for whom Christ died and rose again. I will continue to try to pray for him, try to remember that a broken heart is one open to the mercy of God.
And I will try to blow or, rather, to allow the Holy Spirit to blow the embers of holy love into a roaring fire again. I will remember Fr. Jeff's hands shaking as he invoked the Holy Spirit over the gifts of bread and wine for the first time on Sunday morning, remember the gift and joy of Holy Orders and the love of the One who has given Jeff, and me, this gift. Perhaps if my heart is broken open a little wider after this weekend, the fire of love will glow a bit brighter and true joy will come again. I've been told it tends to do so about this time each year.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
Friday, December 1, 2006
Tonight we gather to observe World AIDS Day. We gather to remember, to mourn, to celebrate, and to advocate. We come to this place for healing, and for the strength to continue to be agents of healing and reconciliation in a broken world. It is in light of this that I invite you to consider with me the extraordinary Gospel lesson we just heard, the story of the healing of the Centurion’s boyfriend.[i]
Notice that the translation of this text refers to the paralyzed person as the Centurion’s “servant.” The Greek word here is pais, which can mean “servant” or, more properly, “servant boy,” but in other contexts is the Greek word used to refer to the younger lover of an older male. While the construction of same-sex love in Hellenistic culture posited such an age difference as normative, it is quite likely that the use of “boy” to refer to one’s beloved in Greek is more akin to the English use of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” as a term of affection regardless of the age of the lovers.
That this is the case here is underscored by the contrast between the use of pais to refer to the object the Centurion’s special concern, and the use of doulos, the Greek word for slave used to designate those under the Centurion’s command, the people he bosses around. Just any old slave would have been unlikely to garner the Centurion’s attention. He was moved to approach Jesus because of his love for his boyfriend.
If this seems like a strained reading of the story, consider that Matthew’s Gospel regularly makes subversive use of Gentiles, who bear all the marks of stereotypical paganism, contrasting their faith with the faithlessness of the religious authorities. The magi who pay homage to Jesus at his birth are pagan sorcerers of whom the rabbis taught: “He who learns from a magus is worthy of death.” Matthew’s bold claim that these foreigners recognized the Messiah, whom the religious leaders rejected, is remarkable.
Remember too the Syrophoenecian woman in Matthew 15, a worshipper of Baal whom Jesus refers to as a kunariois, a dog, which is slang for a temple prostitute. A woman, a gentile, and a prostitute: she was way beyond the pale of acceptance according to the law. And yet, her daughter is healed because of her audacious faith, pressing Jesus to transcend his own limited sense of mission to include this outsider.
And so it should not surprise us that Matthew’s Gospel, which plays brilliantly on the Hellenistic Jewish trope of Gentiles as sorcerers, idolaters, and sexual deviants, depicts a Roman soldier with a male lover as the exemplar of faith. It is this man who entrusts himself and his lover to Jesus in utter humility, without reservation, who is held up as our role model.
Jesus says of the Centurion, “Truly I tell you, in no one in
Jesus is telling us is that God does not divide up the world between insiders and outsiders the way we do. In fact, God turns things upside down, such that the outsiders are frequently those most open to the presence and power of God, while the pious are stone cold deaf to the Word of God that liberates and heals without distinction. Thus Jesus declares to the Pharisees, then and now, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the
It is not our moral superiority that heals us, but rather our trust in the mercy of God. In the age of AIDS, who knows that better than the countless men who have cradled their sick boyfriends, grieved their dead husbands, or entrusted themselves to the Christ who cares for them in the form of their beloved. Think of the men and women from our parishes who for 25 years or more have been such faithful agents of Christ’s healing: it takes my breath away. I think of Jane, who, after her son Steven died of AIDS, went on to help literally hundreds of other young men die with dignity. I think of the men who buried their lovers and then immediately opened their homes to care for their dying friends. I think of people, like my friend Cary, who had made his peace with God and was on his death bed, only to be resurrected by the development of anti-retroviral drugs. Now, he races in the AIDS Ride each year and is preparing to become a deacon in the Episcopal Church.
Then there is Bishop Gene Robinson, who was among the first people to go to
On this World AIDS Day, let us honor the truth that the tragedy of AIDS, despite its devastating impact, has given rise to powerful expressions of compassion and healing, and that it is men and women on the margins – like the Centurion and his boyfriend – who frequently have demonstrated the most faithful response to this ongoing pandemic. In the midst of so much death, the power of love has shone with an astonishing brightness.
Fenton Johnson, writing of his lover, Larry’s, death from AIDS, reminds us that “Grief is love’s alter ego, after all, yin to its yang, the necessary other; like night, grief has its own dark beauty. How may we know light without knowledge of dark? How may we know love without sorrow? ‘The disorientation following such loss can be terrible, I know,’ Wendell Berry wrote me on learning of Larry’s death. ‘But grief gives the full measure of love, and it is somehow reassuring to learn, even by suffering, how large and powerful love is.”[ii]
Isn’t that ultimately the message of the Cross? How large and powerful God’s love is, willing to suffer with us, with us Centurions and our boyfriends, with us who are sick and dying, whether from AIDS or something yet to be revealed, all of us frail mortals upon whom God lavishes such devoted care. That Love will always heal us, though not always in ways that we can anticipate or control.
Shortly after Larry’s death, Fenton found himself driving to Muir Woods with his mother, reflecting on their memories of Larry, of love, and of loss. And then, his mother, rural
“I always thought of myself as tolerant and open-minded. I grew up with people who were gay, though of course back then we didn’t use that word. I knew some people in our town were gay, everyone knew they were gay, but I didn’t think much about that one way or another. Just live and let live, that’s my way of being in the world. And then you told me you were gay, and I guess I’d suspected it all along, and I just prayed that you’d stay healthy and find yourself a place where you could be happy. I prayed for all that and I was glad to see you get yourself to
“This speaking,” writes Fenton, “is the sacred thing, the gift from the dead to the living.” From the death of his lover came the resurrection of his relationship with his mother, bringing a new sense of intimacy, acceptance, and love. This was not the healing he was expecting, or even hoping for, and he never could have imagined what it would cost him. But even Larry’s death served to demonstrate how large and powerful love is.
Our challenge, today and everyday until there is a cure, is to demonstrate how large and powerful love is in the midst of AIDS. Like the Centurion, our love for our boyfriends, our daughters, our neighbors, our sons, our wives, for the whole human family created in God’s image, must be deepened by a humble trust that God loves us, has commissioned us to be agents of Christ’s healing, and has given us everything we need to do this work.
Let it not be said of us, “Truly, I tell you, in no one in the Church have I found such faith.” No, let us make our mantra these words of Jesus: “Go, let it be done for you according to your faith.” Amen.
[i] My reading of this text is indebted to Theodore Jennings, Jr., The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament (
[ii] Fenton Johnson, Geography of the Heart: A Memoir (
[iii] Johnson, p. 234.