Sunday, March 25, 2007

Imitatio Christi

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Amen. (Philippians 3:10-11)

St. Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is in many ways a love letter. Its tone is intimate and personal, expressing Paul’s deep gratitude for the many ways in which the Philippians have supported his ministry. Paul writes to them from prison, yet even in the midst of his own suffering he is concerned to relieve them of any anxiety about his circumstances and to exhort them to practice mutual love and forbearance as they work through conflicts in their community.

Earlier in the letter, Paul writes,

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition of conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus . . .” (Philippians 2:1-5)

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”: Paul invites the Christians at Philippi to imitate Jesus. He invites them to literally change their mind, to exchange one identity for another. He describes this change as a movement from preoccupation with selfish ambition and conceit to humility; just as Christ Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Phil. 2:6b-7) Paul invites the Philippians, and us, to become human.

On the face of it, this may seem like a preposterous suggestion. Are we not human already? How could we be anything else? Well, this is precisely the problem: we do seek to be other than human. My experience teaches me that people, myself included, often behave as if we were more than human or less than human; and this generates all kinds of suffering.

You see, we learn to be human, or not, by internalizing and mimicking and striving for what others desire, starting with parents and caregivers and including our entire cultural inheritance. We see and hear what others do and desire, and we develop an identity through a process of imitation that leads to rivalry and competition for the objects of desire: security, status, health, leisure, food: all those things that form and defend an identity. In this process, we come to delude ourselves into thinking that our identity is something we choose, when in truth it is given to us. The question, therefore, is always, “Who is giving me my identity? Who am I imitating?”

Julia Scheeres, in her memoir, Jesus Land, provides many heart-breaking examples of this dynamic of imitation and rivalry. Julia writes of her experience growing up in rural Indiana with an adopted brother, David, who is her same age. Nothing so unusual about that, except that Julia is white and David is black and their parents are Dutch Reformed Calvinists. The process of identity formation starts early, and it is brutal.

“The rejection was limited to insults and cold shoulders,” writes Julia, “until the summer we were eight, when we were physically attacked. It happened on a July afternoon when our fifteen year-old sister Debra escorted us to Kingston Pool . . . the other kids our age were playing Marco Polo at the other end of the pool, and we longed to join in, but didn’t dare ask – they were the same one’s who yelled the ‘N’ word at us . . . we napped with the sun drying our backs, the shouts and splashes fading to a comforting hum, the summer scents of chlorine and wet concrete thickening the air. We woke to the lifeguard’s whistle burst – the pool was closing . . . As usual, we were the last kids to leave. The Johnsons were waiting for us on the other side of the fence. There were four of them, three boys and a girl, older than us, younger than Deb. They waited until we crossed the clover patch between the pool and playground before jumping us. ‘Stay out of our pool, Niggers!’ they yelled. ‘You’re polluting it!” As Debra got into a shouting match with the oldest boy, the three youngest kids bore down on David and me. My ponytail was yanked, ripping hair from my scalp. We scrambled up the monkey bars and perched on top with our backs together, screaming and bawling and kicking at the white hands that tried to grab our ankles and pull us down. Our flip-flops fell into the sand and we continued kicking, bruising our feet on the metal bars. It ended when a minivan pulled into the parking lot. ‘Mom’s here!’ one of them yelled, and suddenly they had retreated and it was quiet and the sun blazed red and purple on the horizon. We ran all the way home through the darkening woods, but still got in trouble for being late for supper. Mother had no patience for childish brawls. Turn the other cheek, she scolded.” (Jesus Land, pp. 252-253)

It’s a horrible story, but I submit to you that it is hardly uncommon. It is a snapshot of the process of being given an identity through a competition for status and security that we learn by imitating others, which seems to leave us with the very narrow options of becoming a victim or a perpetrator. If we internalize the victim identity we come to understand ourselves as less-than-human. If we try to defend ourselves by becoming invulnerable, we come to understand ourselves as more-than-human, entitled to exploit those less-than-human to shore up our sense of superiority. The identity being given to all of the children in Julia’s story is a variation on these themes.

We see this dynamic at work all around us, with ethnic, racial, gender, national and religious rivalries leaving a wake of hunger, poverty, genocide and ecocide. It is our captivity to this dynamic, our being given an identity in this way, that the theologians call original sin. God comes to us in the face of Jesus to recall us to our true identity as nothing more, and nothing less than human. This is the humility of Christ, free from rivalry and violence, that Paul invites us to imitate. We are invited to change our mind and receive our identity from God.

Breaking out of this dynamic of rivalry and violence isn’t always easy. Paul knew its temptations well, because he was so successful at playing the game on its terms. He had engaged in ethnic and religious rivalry with great zeal, persecuting the early Christians (who were initially a Jewish sect) and building up quite a reputation for himself in the process. He had internalized the identity of perpetrator to great effect.

“Yet whatever gains I had,” writes Paul, “these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” (Philippians 3:7-9a)

Paul regards his former identity as rubbish, and willingly sacrificed all the advantages that accrued to that identity. He has decided instead to receive his identity from God, to strive to imitate Jesus in his suffering and his resurrection: “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil. 3:12)

Paul’s heart was broken open. He fell in love with the One who had loved him all along. And so, he changed his mind. The one who used to persecute and imprison others, now finds himself in prison. He has renounced his privileged former identity, and freely occupies the place of shame in solidarity with those who suffer in imitation of Christ.

It is this falling in love, this breaking open of the heart, that Jesus models for us and invites us to imitate. It is this way of compassion that Paul models, too, though admittedly imperfectly. Receiving our identity from God, becoming compassionate as God is compassionate, is a life-long process.

But it begins with having our heart broken open, and willingly occupying the place of shame in solidarity with those who suffer. This is what makes the story of Julia and David Scheeres so powerful. Julia fell in love with her brother, and so made her self vulnerable to the racism that he suffered. The story of their growing up together reveals that Julia willingly, however inconsistently and imperfectly, occupied the place of shame with David. She became “black” too, even when she could have chosen to distance herself from her brother and accept the protection of white privilege.

In doing this, however, she not only refused to become a perpetrator, she also refused to become a victim. Instead, she allowed the power of love, the identity God is giving us, to make her vulnerable to David’s suffering in such a way as to renew in both of them a sense of their human dignity. She accepted the way of the cross, the suffering of Christ, so that she and David might share in Christ’s resurrection, finding their true identity beyond the false, racist identity they had been given. Together, they became nothing more, and nothing less, than human.

Who is giving you your identity? Who are you imitating?

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Amen. (Philippians 3:10-11)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

What the Bishops Did, and Didn't, Say

Looking a bit more closely at the "mind of the house" resolutions and communication to the Episcopal Church released by the House of Bishops yesterday, it is apparent that these are very nuanced statements. The resolution addressed to the Executive Council reiterates a fundamental principle of our polity that "primatial authority" is finally vested in the General Convention and can not be abrogated or delegated by the Presiding Bishop. It is General Convention which interprets our Constitution and Canons, and any changes in the structure of our governance can only be enacted by the General Convention.

Thus, the bishops, in expressing their opposition to the Primates' "primatial vicar" plan direct their comments to Executive Council, recognizing that body as "General Convention" in between General Conventions, so to speak, while also acknowledging that what the Primates have proposed requires the action of a special General Convention. The Primates do not understand our polity very well and continue to act as if they have an authority which they have not been given; at least, not yet.

Thus, although the Primates did not ask the House of Bishops to consider the "primatial vicar" proposal, directing this "request" to the Presiding Bishop and the so-called "Windsor bishops," our bishops were right to remind the Primates, including our Presiding Bishop, that only General Convention could enact this proposal, and then only by changing beyond recognition our polity and understanding of Anglican tradition. Anglicanism rejected Rome and Geneva a long time ago, thank you. Why should we adopt the worst possible combination of Roman authoritarianism and Calvinist fundamentalism now?

The second resolution, addressed to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates' Standing Committee, says simply, "We've considered the requests you've made to us (regarding consent to gay or lesbian bishops-elect and the blessing of same-sex unions), and believe it is urgent that we talk face-to-face about these matters." That is it. No formal response has been made to these requests and, presumably, the bishops are hoping to meet with Rowan Cantaur and Company prior to the Primates' September 30 deadline.

So, nothing has really been decided yet. The "Communication to the Episcopal Church" doesn't really say anything new. It reiterates that we really, really, really want to remain part of the Anglican Communion and will meet fully our obligations as a constituent member Church, but not at the cost of our autonomy, tradition, and identity as an Anglican Church. It reiterates that gay and lesbian people are children of God and full and equal participants in the life of the Church. While that isn't true in practice by a long shot, it has been said before. It states that we are a "big tent" Church that will work mightily to accommodate minority opinion; but we will not allow the tail to wag the dog.

What is perhaps new is the degree of clarity with which the bishops have spoken, especially with regard to their understanding and commitment to the baptismal ecclessiology expressed in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and exercised through our conciliar structures of governance inclusive of all four orders of ministry. The bishops have done a very good piece of work, and I am grateful for their honest, thoughtful, and calm contribution to the ongoing conversation about the life of the Anglican Communion.

It would, however, be premature to predict that the kingdom of God has arrived, or to get one's panties in a bunch, depending upon your take on what the bishops have said. I, for one, will continue to be alert and watchful - and hopeful.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The House of Bishops Finds Its Voice

The bishops of the Episcopal Church have found their voice in response to the Primates' Communiqué. These "mind of the house" resolutions respect our polity, express our deep desire for shared mission in the Anglican Communion, honor our catholic and reformed heritage, and refuse to abandon our baptismal covenant. The bishops show themselves to be a mature, adult, self-differentiated body with the savvy to push back the anxiety thrust upon them by the Primates. In requesting direct conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates' Standing Committee they have shown the way forward for genuine reconciliation to happen. I appreciate this forthright and honorable speech, so different from what we saw at the last General Convention. Methinks our new Presiding Bishop is demonstrating some serious leadership.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

There's a Party Goin' On

“The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Amen. (Luke 15:2)

This morning we heard the parable of the Prodigal Son, a story that is no doubt familiar to most of you. It was one of the first stories that many of us learned in Sunday school; a story that has inspired some of the finest art and literature of the Western world. It has shaped our culture and our consciousness in ways both subtle and profound. We know this story, and many, many people see in it the narrative of their own lives.

In my experience, most people tend to identify with the younger brother in the story. Who hasn’t sown a few wild oats? Who among us hasn’t strayed along the way? Are we not all sinners in need of forgiveness? We all long for the loving embrace of our Mother-Father God welcoming us home. We are human. But Jesus isn’t overly preoccupied with sinners. He isn’t concerned about those who recognize their need for forgiveness and are able to exercise compassion toward themselves and others. It is people like the older brother in the parable, who worry Jesus.

One of the story lines that drives the dramatic narrative of Luke’s gospel is the developing tension between Jesus and the religious leaders, who use their moral authority to enhance their social status at the expense of those whom they condemn. They are undone by Jesus’ pushing of the boundaries to include those whom they have excluded: the sick, the poor, women, outcasts, and sinners. In their growing resistance to Jesus, they reveal their hypocrisy, their pretense of loving God while despising their neighbor.

Jesus was continually pressing their buttons. One of the ways in which he really ticked them off was his practice of sharing festive meals with sinners and tax collectors, who were considered to be traitors. In fact, the religious leaders accused Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard. He was a party boy, and he partied with the “wrong sort of people.” Through his table fellowship, Jesus enacted the inclusive love of God. Jesus was defining communion with God in ways that undermined the exclusive status of the religious types. If everyone is welcome, then religious folks are no longer special – they are just like everyone else – no more and no less than human; no more, and no less, welcome.

This just drove the religious leaders crazy, and so they are grumbling and saying, “This man welcomes sinners . . . and EATS with them.” They were shocked and appalled that Jesus would make himself impure by associating with such people. For them, impurity is contagious. Jesus turns things upside down: for him, purity is contagious and the mechanism for its transmission is compassion. This is the religious leaders’ ultimate blind spot: their lack of compassion. So, Jesus tells them this famous parable, providing a mirror in which the grumbling Pharisees and scribes are invited to see themselves reflected in the person of the older brother.

Listen again to the part of the story that surely got the religious leaders’ attention:

"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'" (Luke 15:25-32)

The elder brother is like the religious leaders, enraged by the party going on. He thinks he deserves the party – he doesn't understand that the issue of deserving or not deserving is beside the point. He distances himself from his own brother, referring to him as “this son of yours.” He refuses to share table fellowship with such a notorious sinner. As far as he is concerned, any party with little brother on the guest list isn’t worth attending.

The older brother, the religious types whom Jesus gives such fits, are all bound up by notions of entitlement, superiority, and condemnation of others. Theirs is a religion of judgment. Jesus offers a religion of compassion, in which God’s judgment takes the form of mercy. Will the religious leaders hear the good news offered to the older brother? “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

The father in the parable insists on connection: “this brother of yours was dead” – challenging his oldest son to acknowledge the bonds of affection, the common humanity that they share. And he insists on compassion – “we had to celebrate and rejoice.” Through compassion, the one who was cut off, who was dead, is restored to relationship and to life. The party is just revving up. Will the older brother relent and join in? The parable ends without revealing his response. And so the invitation remains open.

Here, I’m reminded of a story that Louie Crew tells about his family. While his parents came to accept the fact that Louie is gay, they could not accept the fact that his husband, Ernest, is black. Ernest was not welcome in their home. They had stretched the boundaries of inclusion as far as they could go. Jesus was pushing hard up against the limits of their white privilege and Alabama upbringing.

In the midst of all this painful rejection, Louie and Ernest found it amusing that both sets of parents would confuse them with each other on the phone. Evidently, they sounded the same when they answered. One day, after six years of marriage, Louie answered the phone and heard his father say, “Let me speak to my son.” Louie laughed, “Dad, you are speaking to your son.” “No Louie,” his father replied, “I want to speak to my OTHER son.”

Louie picked his jaw up off the floor and handed the phone to Ernest, whispering, “This one’s for you.” Ernest’s father-in-law said, “Ernest, We are Christians but we haven’t acted like Christians. Please forgive us. We want to invite you and Louie to come visit us this weekend. We are going to have a party and invite all of our friends so that they can meet you. You are our son and you are welcome in our home.”

Louie’s parents, who started out as “older brother” types concerned with maintaining the boundaries of religious and racial purity, were eventually willing to accept God’s open-ended invitation. In welcoming Ernest to their home, they, too, finally joined in the party.

The good news of Jesus is that communion with God is a terrific party and God, not the religious authorities, is in charge of the guest list. Indeed, it is impossible to crash God’s party, because you are always already invited. The religious authorities do so much grumbling, because the “wrong” people keep showing up at the door. They sometimes forget that associating with the “wrong” people is the whole point.

As Brian Taylor reminds us, “Being a follower of Jesus means that we associate with the ‘wrong’ crowd. We are to make friends wherever we find an open heart and a desire for God, no matter what ‘sort’ of person they are. We are to drop our judgments that are based upon social conformity and look into the heart of each individual. We are to move beyond our fear and listen to the other. What we often discover when we do so is a refreshing perspective that gives new life to our dusty old religiosity. We discover the spirit of Jesus alive again. (Becoming Human, p. 58)

On the altar of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco you will find the following words inscribed: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” May these words be inscribed on our hearts now and forever. Amen.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

A Must Read Sermon

The Episcopal Church as Prophet to our Day
The Second Sunday of Lent March 4, 2007
Luke 13:31-35
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor

My sermon today will be about what is going on in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. I don’t like to dwell on this too much, because we’ve got more important things to do here: to develop our faith and minister to God’s people in need.

But as some have said, what is taking place right now is one of the most significant developments in our church’s history since the Reformation 450 years ago. And if you care about the kind of perspective on the Christian faith that we have here at St. Michael’s, it is important for you to know what is at stake. It’s not just about sex. It’s whether Christianity will be able to have any relevance to our modern world . . .

The world needs a church that doesn’t see the Bible as a rule-book, but as a chronicle of a sacred journey. The world needs a church that isn’t exclusive and triumphant about the uniqueness of Christ, but knows that other religious and spiritual paths also lead to God. The world needs a church that understands that what matters in relationships is not outmoded taboos based on ignorance, but the quality of love – commitment, responsibility, respect, devotion, self-sacrifice, truth, and faith. The world needs a church that is willing to be open to fresh understanding about God and humanity that comes from the Spirit.

Read the entire sermon here.

On Anglican Idols

I've been thinking a lot about idols lately. Many LGBT Episcopalians, including myself, have expressed concerns about the idol of institutional unity; the willingness to sacrifice the lives, vocations, and relationships of LGBT people for the sake of the unity of the Anglican Communion. Our Presiding Bishop has recently opined that the idol of impatience (for justice and mercy) is equally problematic; though she allows that many of the prophets and saints, not to mention Jesus, were not notable for their patience. The inference is that LGBT Episcopalians and our allies are willing to sacrifice the Anglican Communion to the idol of impatience.

Here, it is important to call to mind two aspects of idolatry: idols, unlike God, always require sacrifice; and they never deliver on their promises. This being the case, I do not believe that there is any moral or spiritual equivalence between the "idolatry of unity" and the "idolatry of impatience." The later is not an idol at all.

My impatience is, in fact, an impatience with the whole concept that God desires sacrifice. God desires mercy, not sacrifice. As Jesus teaches us in his refusal of the third temptation in Luke's account of his wilderness trial, God does not require sacrifice in order for us to obtain mercy. Mercy precedes sacrifice. We do not need to put God to the test. We do not need to throw ourselves off the pinnacle of any temples - Jewish, Anglican, or otherwise - to vindicate ourselves or God. God's saving mercy, vindicating us who are unable to vindicate ourselves, is already present.

The idea that sacrifice precedes mercy is demonic, and I am inpatient to reject it. Unity based on sacrifice is not communion - it is scapegoating. Any community organized on the basis of scapegoating has become on idol, and our response must be an impatient loyalty to the God of mercy.

Such idols as unity based on scapegoating are unable to deliver on their promises. The promise of authentic communion with God and one another through Christ already has been obtained by those willing to receive it. It is God's free gift and can not be forced upon anyone. Those who accept this gift and recognize God's mercy at work in the lives and ministries of others will discover communion as given already through Christ.

Those who accept and rejoice in the mercy of God, may indeed be called to make many sacrifices for the sake of sharing that mercy with others. But is is always mercy that precedes sacrifice; sacrifices offered in solidarity with victims and not for the making of new victims; sacrifices offered in witness to the mercy of God in imitation of our Lord's own sacrifice on the Cross.

I hope that our Church as a whole will refuse the temptation to throw itself - or more to the point, its LGBT members - off the temple mount. I hope that instead, we will walk the way of the Cross, sacrificing our status in the Anglican Communion - sacrificing institutional privilege - to bear witness to the mercy of God, if necessary. If we are willing to do so, I believe we will discover the promise of authentic communion fulfilled in new and surprising ways.