28 April 2008

Spacious Place

Bless our God, O peoples,
let the sound of God's praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living,
and has not let our feet slip.
For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
you laid burdens on our backs;
you let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.
--Psalm 66:8-12

We have been tested, yes, and been through fire. Not just in the wider world, not just in society, but in our very church. In our very own faith communities. We are not free to answer God's call to ordained ministry, not free to be joined in holy union with our partners, not free to bring our whole selves into the Body of Christ. Yes, we have been tested. People have, indeed, ridden over our heads.

But the psalmist promises us "a spacious place." There is a spacious place that God will bring us into, a place with plenty of breathing room, a place spacious enough to share our whole selves. God IS making that place ready for us.

I pray that it is in the church I love. I pray that it is in the community that raised me and taught me to believe. But if it is not, and these days it is easy to believe that it is not, I pray that God leads us to the prepared place anyway. I am tired of knocking on the door, begging for entrance into a place that is too small for me. God's place will be spacious enough for all.

21 April 2008

Unsound Bites

John 14:6
By Rev. Richard S. Hong

Especially in this political season, people decry the “sound bite” world we live in and hold the modern media responsible for it. But I blame the sound bite phenomenon on Stephen Langton and Robert Stephanus, among others. Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th century, and Stephanus, a Parisian book printer in the 16th century, are primarily credited with being responsible for the modern system of dividing the Bible into chapters and verses.

Dividing the Bible into verses made it too easy to argue from the parts instead of from the whole. The whole of the Bible is a story of ever-broadening acceptance and inclusion; pulled apart into sound bites, it can be just as easily manipulated as any politician’s speech. John 14:6 has long been a “Bible sound bite” deployed as a weapon against other faiths. But just as one has to hear the well-publicized comments of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in their complete sermonic context in order to appreciate them, John 14:6 cannot be accurately read outside of its context.

“To use these verses in a battle over the relative merits of the world’s religions is to distort their theological heart.” (O’Day, New Interpreter’s) The “theological heart” of these words is found in thinking about their immediate audience: Jesus is speaking to his tiny band of disciples who are frightened, isolated, and opposed by the powerful twin forces of both the religious and secular authorities. Is there a way out? Yes, Jesus says: follow me.

John 14:6 becomes a weapon when we quote it out of confidence and hubris instead of turning to it in times of fear and uncertainty. Watch a small child who is suddenly surrounded by a crowd of strangers at the mall (or at coffee hour). Frightened, he/she instinctively jumps into the arms of a parent – the person whom the child knows will provide safety and protection. Is there no other person around who would protect the child? Objectively, there probably is. Subjectively, in that moment the child only knows that there is safety in the arms of the parent. One of my favorite pastor/authors is Rob Bell. In the very first of his NOOMA series of videos (entitled “Rain”), he tells of going for a walk in the woods with his son when a sudden, fierce thunderstorm arises. All the way back to the cabin, he keeps reminding his terrified son: “I love you and we’re going to make it.” In this context, that problematic sentence: “No one comes to the Father except through me” is a reminder to his disciples to stay focused on rescuer, not the storm.

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” is not the answer to the question: “Are we the best religion of them all?” After all, Jesus has just finished telling Peter that he is going to deny him, and Thomas wants to know how to find the dwelling places Jesus has told them are awaiting them. The question on the minds of the disciples is: “how are we going to make it without you?” Jesus’ answer simply means: “Do not be troubled. Believe in me. Jump into my arms. I love you and we’re going to make it. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

Jesus’ words are addressed to people who are riding the sea of life in a lifeboat, not a battleship. It is about the power of Christ, not Christian power. As such, far from being words that should be used to marginalize others, they are words of comfort to the marginalized. Jesus is not leaving you desolate. There is a dwelling place for waiting for you. Let Jesus lead you there.

Lectionary Notes:

The other passages for Easter 5A help set the theme of hope and perseverance for persons in trouble. The Psalmist declares God as “my rock and my fortress” (Ps. 31:3) and pleads with God to “save me in your steadfast love” (Ps. 31:16). 1 Peter reminds us that the “stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner” (1 Pet. 2:7), while Acts 7:55-60 tells of the confidence Stephen had even as he perished by stoning. All of these help us interpret the Gospel lesson through the lens of rescue rather than trimuphalism.

For tech dweebs only:

I was a software consultant before going into ministry, and at the core of programming are logical operators. If two things are related by “AND”, the result is true if both things are true. If two things are related by “OR”, the result is true if either thing is true. In the land of computer logic, there is a third operator, the “exclusive or”, usually abbreviated as “XOR”. The result of an XOR operation is true if and only if exactly one or the other is true, but not both (or neither).

In the intersection of my logical world and my theological world, I find something deeply meaningful in the fact that the latter is called an “exclusive or” while the former is called an “inclusive or.” Inclusive or: it’s okay if both are true. Exclusive or: it isn’t good enough for one to be true; if one is true, the other has to be false. Too much of our theology is crafted in the logical world of the “exclusive or.”

When we base our truth claims in the world of the “exclusive or”, then we have to worry about more than the truth claims of Jesus; we have to worry about the truth claims of all of the world’s faith traditions. When we live in the world of the “inclusive or”, all we need to examine are the truth claims of our own faith. That alone seems like a big enough job to keep me occupied for, say, the rest of my life.

14 April 2008

Through the Valleys

4th Sunday in Easter
Psalm 23; I Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
by Scott D. Anderson

“Even though I walk though the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me…”
-Psalm 23:4

Just before Christmas, my 82-year-old mother asked me to pull my chair close to her in the skilled nursing facility she now calls home. A fiercely independent woman in her younger years, she now struggles with multiple ailments and a failing body. In these twilight years of life, she is completely dependent on others for her daily needs.

My mother wanted to talk with me about her death. This was our first such conversation. A sacred moment, to be sure. She worries about her constant, physical pain which the doctors are trying to manage. She fears being alone when the end is near. She wants to let go peacefully. She reached for my hand she asked me to pray with her for God’s presence, guidance and strength. As we closed our eyes, I realized that this was the first time I had ever prayed with my mother alone.

As a gay man who follows Jesus Christ, I find a peculiar kind of empathy with my mother. Perhaps it’s the years of struggle in coming out and building relationships, the many small crucifixions I’ve endured living as a part of the majority heterosexual culture. Walking through the valley of the shadow of death, in so many ways, is a part of our identity as LGBT Christians.

I’ve learned that God’s promise of presence, echoed in the words of the Psalmist, is often made real in the way we are present with others who are walking through the dark valleys of life. God makes use of our vulnerabilities and woundedness to communicate something profound about the character of divine love, a love which is capable of transcending even the most anxious moments of our living.

In that time of prayer with my mother, we were both able to share our weakness with God. What a gift!

Dear God, when we walk through the valleys of the shadow of death, we know you are with us. Help us to see our weaknesses and vulnerability as gifts to share. Amen.

07 April 2008

Road to Emmaus

Luke 24:13-35
by Lisa Larges
Minister Coordinator, That All May Freely Serve

Here's the sneaky thing about God and gay people: God meets us on that road to Emmaus, but then it turns out the road ends in the parking lot of some church called Presbyterian, or Methodist, or Lutheran, or fill-in-the-blank, where they're not all tickled to see us!

Do you ever wonder why there are so many glbt people attending churches whose denominational policies are flat-out discriminatory? Do you ever wonder why there are any at all? Do you ever wonder why lgbt folks continue to hear the call to ministry in denominations laboring mightily to keep them out? I do. I wonder these things.

Do you ever, after reading or hearing about the latest heterosexist/gender-phobic ruling or policy or statement from your national church find yourself asking the question, "Why am I in this church anyway?" I do - just about every day.

Of course, one very good answer to such questions is that many of us attend wonderful open justice seeking local churches that have either taken on the struggle to change exclusionary denominational policies, or at least have chosen actively to ignore them. That's one explanation, but there's also the Emmaus factor.

I mean, Christ has met us on the road and opened up the truth for us. Many of us met Christ on the road of our coming out - we drank it in as the Christ opened the Scriptures to us, giving us the courage to let go of our fear and shame and self-hatred. For others Christ came along on that road toward living fully into one's truest gender identity. Others of us met the Christ on the road of queer politics. Still others met the Christ on the road called falling in love.

In the opening of his Institutes of Christian Religion, John Calvin writes "Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God." John Calvin may not have known he was writing about the experience of queer people, but for so many of us that deep struggle for self-knowledge has led to knowing God. And that knowing God has, for some of us, led us back to church, proving
once again that God has an unerring sense of irony.

I know the Emmaus story. I've lived it. Maybe you have too? I've been walking down that road all full of sadness and despair and an unshakable certainty that the world was going to hell in a handbasket. Then the incognito Christ has come along and walked beside me and explained patiently to me the truth of God's goodness and grace.

May we remember to hold on to the hand of the Christ, wherever the road takes us!