Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Prayers for Leigh

Leigh Peterson is a phenomenal young woman who runs a non-profit without pay and works for another one to pay the bills.  She takes in strays (people - not cats), and has been recognized in the community for her hard work.  She lives her faith, albeit imperfectly, as intentionally as she is able to.  Leigh has been suffering from something they can't define for a few months now.  She becomes dizzy and disoriented and has other neurological symptoms.  They have ruled out most of the major stuff (cancer, tumor, etc.).  They have monitored her heart to check for arrhythmia, and she is currently undergoing a sleep study.  Please pray that God will offer clarity.  Not because Leigh is so good - which she is even though she would deny it.  Pray for her because God is good.  Please pray that God's sustaining presence will be evident, that a diagnosis will be achieved, and that a treatment plan will be developed.  Oh, and that she has sweet dreams!

Amendment 10 a is so gay...

Well, we finally did it.  The PC(USA) took a demonstrative stand on the issue of homosexuality, and it has become quite the media sensation without and quite the firestorm within.  I will admit to voting in favor of this amendment, and I will tell you why.  Primarily I felt the former language of the rule limiting ordained office (ministers, elders, and deacons) to those "faithful in marriage and chaste in singleness" to be disingenuous.  The church had no desire to become the bedroom police of it's heterosexual leadership, and no desire to take a stand on issues related to sexual promiscuity.  The language was simply there to keep a gate closed to homosexuals and to turn a blind eye to those following social norms.  I do not mean to say that the norm of marriage between a man and a woman is bad.  I mean to say that we all know which speed limits are enforced and where to push the limit.

Beyond the double standard of the language, there are gays and lesbians who have served the church with gladness for years - probably from the beginning.  There are also gays and lesbians with incredible gifts who have left the church because of the neglect or abuse they have received from those who claim to be loving as Christ loved. 

I have never spoken publicly - or forthrightly in mixed groups - about my feelings because of my fear of reprisal, but many have known about (or assumed) my support of gay ordination for some time now.  I suppose this is my own "Coming Out," and even as I write I am not sure if this will see the light of day.

Partially this is because of fear of how it will impact me and my family.  Partially it is because of my concern for those I have been called to serve.  My congregation is small but mighty.  They are mostly older.  We do have a few homosexuals who attend occasionally and feel welcome here. I have been straightforward with the congregation regarding the PC(USA)'s decision, and though a few are less than pleased I do not anticipate anyone leaving.

Friends and colleagues I know across the country have it a little differently.  Some face schism in their congregations.  Some have Ministers, Commissioned Lay Pastors, and Elders in their Presbytery making tremendous waves.  One friend asked if I thought schism was bad for the church, historically.  He also challenged me by asking what scriptural proof can be given to show congregants that ordaining homosexuals is a good thing.  Both of these questions thoroughly challenged me, and I want to share my responses with you in case you have any thoughts to add to the conversation.

As to schism, has it not given greater witness to the church universal?  Where would the proclamation of Jesus Christ be without the Protestant Reformation and the development of denominations?  It's not directly related, but the current trend in church membership (which is not to join) may actually be a greater opportunity for connecting the witness of the church, and there is nothing that a new denomination or a swapping of sheep from one fold to the next can do about it. 

As to the need for (or expectation of) schism.  It seems to me that things are intractable.  Many of those who are against 10a and want to stay only want to do so in order to martial resources, circle wagons, and consolidate power.  The tension over homosexuality, in some ways, has become our identity. So much time and energy has been spent on this issue that could be spent on proclamation, justice, and kingdom living. I believe that we should find a way to let people leave with grace - even if that means taking their property with them.

Of course, nothing feels good or right about schism or loosing members.  It even seems a bit like Jesus' warning in Mark 13:12 "Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death."

That leads me to the scriptural argument - which is probably where I should have started, and where I remain challenged. I can tell you why the typical Bible passages are not sufficient to condemn (related to temple worship and Greco-Roman servitude, not loving monogamous relationships).  I can tell you about a host of mandates from scripture that we neglect and ignore in the name of inclusivity, equality, and justice, but when it comes to something that says, "God blesses homosexual relationships" I am a little weak. 

I can affirm John 3:16  "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

I can affirm that Jesus blessed the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew and Mark - healing her daughter by her faith.

I can affirm 2 Kings 5:18-19, the story of the foreign general, Namaan, healed by Elisha. He asks Elisha to forgive him when he kneels in the temple of Rimon with his master, even though he knows the Lord is God, and Elisha says, "Go in peace."

At the base of this (and the expected rebuttal) is the question of belief and transformation.  Can a person be a homosexual and believe?  Do gays and lesbians have faith? How can a person remain at peace with God while practicing an activity that pulls them from God?  Personally, I think that if I, forgiven sinner who continues to transgress, can claim to believe, to have faith, and be transformed, then I can't say that someone else has not just because they are attracted to, or in a relationship with, someone else.  I may not like it (some relationships are simply not healthy - gay or straight).  I may not want to see it (not fond of overt displays of Affection between anyone - gay or straight), but I can still encourage a faithful response to grace under the Lordship of Christ (from anyone - gay or straight).

All of this reminds me of my friend, Nancy.  She is a fun loving, rather intense young woman who barged into my office one day after school.
"I need to ask you a question."
"OK, shoot!"
"Can gay people be Christian?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Because I'm gay, and people at school are telling me I can't be a Christian!  I need to know if I need to be a Buddhist or something."
"Well, Nancy, do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and do you believe he died for you?"
"Yes."
"Then I think you are a Christian."

We continued to talk, pray, and study together for the rest of the time I was at that church.  Since then we have stayed in touch.  Nancy has since converted to Judaism because she did not find a welcome embrace in the Christian faith - Presbyterian or otherwise.  Recently, Nancy converted to Judaism.  She has become more open to God's presence through the music and community of the Jewish faith.  I couldn't be more proud of her for embracing God's calling, and she is more aware of herself as a child of God then she has ever been. 

I do not want this to be our legacy.  I do not want to be the church that encourages others to continue in their journey in a place where they can be more welcome.  As I right this, I realize the hypocrisy of hoping that some may leave gracefully to make room for others.  Sadly, we do not seem to be able to offer the love of God and the opportunity to respond in a way that makes all people feel welcome.  So we move forward, attempting to be faithful, and we seek to be the living stones that Christ is using to build the Kingdom of God (1 Peter 2:2-10).

Grace and Peace to all...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Crazy Talk

First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, Louisiana
April 24, 2011 – Easter (Year A)
Jeremiah 31:1-6
Colossians 3:1-4
John 20:1-18

Crazy Talk – that's what all of this Easter stuff is, you know.  Crazy talk – that's what they had to have said about Jeremiah!  His disciples drag him off to Egypt after he has seen his nation crumble, the King's sons put to death, and the King blinded, bound, and dragged off as a slave.  Yet all Jeremiah wants to talk about is their history of salvation, making claims that God will do it again – "on that day," whenever that will be.

Then we have Paul, or someone writing in his name, telling us that we are hidden with Christ, that through our baptism we are already dead.  Not only have we died but, presumably, we have also been raised with Christ.  But how do we know? If we have been raised with Christ then we will set our minds on things that are above.  Oh.  Well, that clears it right up.

Then we have this audacious story in John's gospel with Mary Magdeline as the hero.  She is the first on the scene.  She goes to get the other disciples.  She stays to mourn and becomes the first witness, then goes to preach the first sermon to a group of men who would have been taught by their fathers to pray, "O God, thank you for not making me a woman."

What do we do with all of this crazy talk?  That was part of a discussion I had last Wednesday with some of the good folks from the church in Welsh, Louisiana.  I joined them for a Lenten series to reflect on images of Jesus and what they mean to us.  One of the more interesting comments had to do with recognizing the fact that there are a large number of people outside of the church that are not interested in our doctrine.  There are a large number of people outside of the church that think that what we talk about is a little crazy.  As the church loses its ground of influence on the neighborhood and the town hall we begin to wonder what has gone wrong and how can we get it back.

Some of us are like the disciples looking at the linens and walking away as believers, but what do we believe?  Scholars disagree on what the disciples themselves – even the beloved disciple – believed at this point.  The very next line says that even they did not yet understand the scriptures regarding the resurrection.

Perhaps they believed Jesus had been taken up.  Perhaps they believed that Jesus had thrown off the veil, like Moses, because he was now able to stand in God's presence.  Whatever they believed, it wasn't enough. After all, they still needed the sermon of Mary Magdeline to set them straight.

And what was her sermon?  What was her story?  It begins after the other disciples have come and gone.  She sits alone, crushed and weeping.  Suddenly there are two angels present, asking her why she is crying.  I can't help but wonder what their voices sounded like.  Was there empathy and concern?  Was there curiosity: did the angels wonder how in heaven or on earth could someone be sad after what has happened?  Maybe there was even a bit of a hidden chuckle: Jesus was right behind her and they knew it.

Somehow their presence in an otherwise empty tomb does not seem to startle her as much as the presence of the person behind her does when he asks the same question, "Woman, why are you weeping?"  Mary's response is one of the best demonstrations of humanity in the bible, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."

The man has been dead for three days, and it was not a particularly attractive death.  Of course she didn't recognize him!  But don't let that distract you.  The real kicker is when she said, "I will take him away."  Maybe she was planning to get the others to help her, but that is still a fairly ridiculous proposition.  Aside from questions about who would have taken his body and why, her answer speaks to our very human tendency to control, to manage, and to solve.

Yet Jesus will not be defined - neither as a gardener or a teacher.  Jesus will only be revealed.  He reveals himself by calling her name, by offering the experience of being known, understood, and loved.  Jesus reveals himself and tells her to make it known to others that he is going to be one with God so that we might become one with God as well.  Now, that is the crazy talk that we have really come to celebrate today!

We celebrate because in the midst of natural disasters and personal failings, in the midst of hospital beds and economic crisis, in the midst of global conflict and internal politics, in the midst of suffering and indifference we have found angels guarding empty spaces and asking us why we are crying.  We celebrate because, like Jeremiah, we know that God has been revealed through a history of salvation, and through the person, work and resurrection of Jesus, God continues to offer salvation even now.

We celebrate because, like the church in Colossae, we know that our true nature, our essence, is not found where most people look to find it.  Through Christ, in Christ, because of Christ – we have become citizens of the Kingdom of God.  Some say that you cannot see this kingdom, but I believe I get a glimpse of it every now and again.

I believe I have seen it when Myrna complains about having too much peanut butter and jelly (which she would never do) for the UCO.  I believe I see it when you visit one another in the hospital and pray for one another on Wednesdays.  I believe I see it when you bring in items for various ministries ranging from toys to supplies for food bags for the needy.  In fact, you people have to be told when to quit!

I believe I see God's Kingdom when members come together to clean and maintain our building and grounds.  I believe I see it when the choir offers special selections they have worked on for months.  I believe I see it when we gather around this table and proclaim our salvation history, accept our salvation present, and move into our future salvation.

And that's right about where I get hung up.  We can say, "He is risen!" and even "He is risen indeed!"  But can we live it?  For me to answer this question honestly, I think I would have to say, "Sometimes."  Sometimes I am satisfied with the empty tomb and the idea that Jesus is 'up there looking down.'  Sometimes I want to do what Mary offers to do.  I want to manage the unmanageable grace of God.  But then this crazy talkin' Jesus says to me, "Go and tell them that I am with God so that they can be too." 

All of these stories we've shared today are about the way in which God has revealed Godself to God's people, and I can find no conclusion other than God's desire to be known through you and through me.  I can think of no other way to reveal God to others than to love as I have been loved.  Unfortunately, I cannot really love others as I have been loved, because I am not God.  But I can trust that God has chosen to foolishly, recklessly, and lavishly love others through me.

I can trust that the limitations of this crazy world with all of its pain and suffering and even in the height of human pleasure and joy cannot define, limit, or contain God's saving action through Jesus Christ!  Salvation starts here and now with every confessed sin, with every faithful attempt to demonstrate the Kingdom of God, with every 'Hosanna!' we sing, and with every act of mercy we offer and receive from strangers and loved ones alike.

Jesus is not where we expect him to be.  He is not in the tomb.  He is not wandering in the clouds.  He is not bound by any location that we can conceive.  Jesus has, instead, become the location wherein we, like Mary Magdelene, may be found, known, understood, and loved.  Let us then - who have been raised with Christ - seek the things that are above so that when Christ is revealed in our actions and relationships, we too may be revealed with him.  And to God be the glory, both now and always.  Amen!