22 October 2007

The Parable of the Persistent Widow

(Delivered at The Church of The Good Shepherd, Athens, OH on 21 October 2007)

The Gospel According to Luke, 18:1-8

Welcome once again to the Parable Parade.

In Year C of the Episcopal Liturgical Calendar, we read a lot of scripture from Luke. And Luke LOVED to relate Jesus’ parables. For those of you who are tired of trying to figure out the real meaning, you will be happy to know that we are almost out of Year C.

In this parable Jesus, as he is oft to do, disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed. As we listen to the parable, we go ‘Aha – I know where He is going with this’. In this and other parables, he seems to point to a logical conclusion only to suddenly add a twist that gives us an unexpected ending. All the sudden we are somewhere we didn’t expect.

The parable in today’s Gospel is often called the Parable of the Persistent Widow or the Parable of the Unjust Judge. It is one of the few parables that states the point at the very beginning: Pray and do not lose heart.

But there is another theme in this parable: the desire for change.

According to the customs of the day, a marriage contract stated a husband's obligations to his wife, and on his death she had a right to be supported out of his estate as specified in the contract. The widow had no legal right to inherit. Normally a husband's estate would take care of a widow's needs. But the normal condition was by no means universal. Many widows and their children were left destitute. So common was this state of affairs that "widow" came to mean not simply a woman whose husband was dead but also one who had no means of financial support and thus needed special protection.

The poor widow in this parable wants retribution for a wrong done her so that she can improve her own life. She represents poverty and vulnerability – a victim of exploitation and the abuse of power. However, instead of being paralyzed by the injustice, this widow cries out long and hard with hope. I am sure she figured if she became such a thorn in the judge’s side, he would eventually relent . . . just as he did. Not because:

· it was the right thing to do,

· not because he took pity on her,

· not because her cause was just,

· but simply because he got tired of her harping.

The widow, by constantly haranguing the judge, eventually gets her retribution. Not because the judge saw that it was the right thing to do, but rather to just get her to be quiet and stop bothering him. He readily admitted that he was not a godly man or even had much use for people; he just wanted her to shut up! He didn’t even consider the merits of her case.

Sometimes people feel that God is just a little too much like the judge; not really caring enough to respond right away, but needing to be irritated by constant prayers before answering. If we feel this way, we create an image of God that is aloof and cold. That in order to get his attention, we think we need to pray unceasingly until He perhaps gets tired of hearing from us and decides to answer the prayer so we will shut up.

But is God really like the unjust judge?

Or, perhaps, are we the unjust judge?

Are we not dominated by our own egos?

Are we just looking for what is in it for us?

We neither fear God nor respect other people. Just like the widow, we want what is due us, no matter whether it might be wrong or unjust. The widow not only wanted a righteous judgment, but she wanted revenge. She was shouting ‘I have been wronged and I deserve better than this!’ She wanted to be heard for who and what she was, a person wronged. She did not simply want justice done, she wanted to be avenged.

But if there is vengeance to be given, it will be given by the Lord, not by humans. We may want to have the final say, but that belongs to God in God’s time.

I believe the judge in our parable represents the world, which has no sense of justice or place before God. It is that world that ensures ‘Life is not Fair’. In many ways, I think the widow represents Christianity; Jesus associated with the poor, the outcast, those with disease. The widow represents all three – widows are often homeless, therefore beggars, attacked by thieves, ignored by a disdainful public. Ejected from Jewish synagogues as heretics and hated by the pagan population as Jews disloyal to the Roman Empire, Christians also were alone, poor and outcasts.

We, as Christians, are called to be there with those in pain; to be in touch with the struggles, poverty and all things that make people cry out in our world. But we also must live into the affirmation that God cares, even though the answering of the prayers may not come speedily. We need to build sustaining communities where people can be supported in their crying out and not lose heart, communities where we do not tune one another out, but live in hope and the faith that our prayers WILL be answered by God. We need communities where we do not need to shoulder the burden alone, where we have others who will help us see a glint of hope in the situation. Even in the most corrupt environment, there is the possibility of hope and faith if we just band together to support each other.

In truth, I believe that God is persistent in his love for us. He is like that widow who eventually wears us down by constantly pursuing us. Eventually we yield and let God enter our lives and guide us to do the right thing. Prayer is the means for God to enter our lives and challenge us to change our self-destructive behavior. By praying, we invite God into our spirit; He then begins his work and our transformation. When we pray in a difficult situation, after a failure or during illness, God provides the answer in most unexpected ways: it may be

in a sermon . . .
or a book . . .
in the joy of a student learning in your class . . .
or a movie . . .
or a child in the park . . .
or perhaps in the widow in today’s parable.

God does not force us to accept His gift. We have the choice of whether to be open, ready, alert and listening to the demands God may be making on us.

Let me tell you a story about the power of prayer. Four years ago I finally answered a lifelong call to ordained ministry. I came back from the 2003 General Convention, where resolutions were passed welcoming all people into the church, particularly God’s LGBT children. It was as if God had thumped me on the head and said, ‘alright girl, it is time’. So I began the discernment process. Within a period of six weeks, I had completed the discernment process with my committee, presented my report and case to my home parish and received the vestry and rector’s blessing. I made an appointment with the bishop for postulancy.

But alas, it was not to be. You see, I am a lesbian in a long-term committed relationship. Now the Episcopal Church says that I am welcome and deserve everything by rights of my baptismal covenant, but our prior bishop did not see it that way. So after much waiting, I found out that I would not be granted postulancy. The only course of action seemed to be to wait until he had retired and try again.

The only thing that got me through this rough period was prayer and the support of those around me. I know God must have gotten tired of hearing me cry ‘How long, O God, How Long?’. But my prayers were answered in an off-handed way. For reasons still not completely clear to me, I was contacted by the interim dean of the Anglican Academy to start school without my postulancy. I saw this as a sign from God that it was finally time.

One year passed and the 2006 General Convention passed B033 which, among other things, put a moratorium on consecration of non-celibate gay bishops – and some dioceses chose to filter that down to all gays. Then, we didn’t have a diocesan bishop so no one would grant me postulancy. SO, I had to wait another year for postulancy. Again, although my head understood the issues, my heart was torn and I again was crying to God ‘How Long, O God, How Long?’. But finally, in God’s time and with the blessing of this diocese, this spring I received postulancy. And now y’all have me.

It has become increasingly clear that if I had not been delayed, I would never have been here. Father Carroll would not have been your rector, and I would not have been compelled to ask to serve at Good Shepherd.

And as a result,

. . .all the things I am learning here

. . . and the wonderful people I have met

. . . and will cherish forever . . .

would not have happened.

It wasn’t until the end of last spring (the end of my second year of a three-year program) that I realized that the reason God did not answer my prayers to soften people’s hearts earlier was for a more divine reason.

Because I was delayed by one year, I entered a class of twenty-one, including two other gays. The three of us are very diverse and have given the class an experience which would not have happened had I started school when I originally applied. Because we are sure in our belief that God has called us to the ministry, the other class members have gotten to know us and the pain that each of us has gone through to get this far. One of us is a defrocked protestant deacon and the other signed a pledge of celibacy in order to start school; two of us are partnered in long-term, committed relationships. Because we have all been open and honest about our faith and struggles, the diocese has become more open to gay clergy and laity. I believe that is why God did not answer my prayers sooner.

But he DID answer my prayers. . . just as he answers the prayers of all who pray to him. It may not be on our time schedule, but he loves us enough to answer when it is right for us – even when we can’t see that.

Constantly praying for God’s will builds up not only faith, but hope and charity for all his creatures. Praising and thanking a benevolent God strengthens trust, which in turn gives hope. Interceding on another’s behalf deepens the bonds of friendship and love. Prayer naturally increase faith, hope and love. They empower us to obey God’s commands.

Jesus says in this parable that we are ‘to pray always’. That does not mean that we have to pray every single minute of the day. If we did that, those prayers would be dead prayers; we would never have time to do the work required to answer the prayer.

‘Always’ means we should be faithful to our regular times of prayer. And we should pray in the good and bad times. But Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:7 that ‘long prayers and useless repetition will not make God hear us better’. He already knows our needs.

We need to include in our prayers, not only prayers for help but more importantly prayers of thanksgiving. Think about how many times God has answered a prayer or provided a blessing --- have you thanked Him for those?

Do you pray for God’s will or for your own desires?

Is your faith strong enough to trust God with an unknown future?

“Always” also means that we should always be ready to pray – praying whenever a crisis hits or a need arises. Even the saints found that sometimes their minds wandered, causing them to think about everything else except what they were praying for. In a recent biography of Mother Teresa, she admitted that she always felt distant from God and never was quite sure that He heard her when she prayed. Good prayer habits show our dedication to God and strengthen our relationship with him.

But God is God,

not the arrogant, nonchalant judge of today’s parable.

And He will hear and He will answer

– in his time

- and as you need.

So pray continually and never lose heart.

For surely God will answer your prayers as he has answered mine.

Curing of the Lepers (Or Curing of Nine and Healing of One)

(Delivered at Lindley Assisted Living Center, 14 October 2007)

The Gospel According to Luke, 17:11-19

In this Gospel, we see Jesus traveling between Samaria and Galilee. This was frontier-land and could be dangerous; lots of unsavory characters roamed the roads and waylaid the travelers. Jesus deliberately went this way to seek out the lepers, as the scripture says ‘for he found those that sight him not.’

Leprosy was considered an unclean disease, and those suffering from it knew enough to keep themselves away for other people. They were the most outcast of the outcast. So when they saw Jesus approach, they remained at a distant but cried out to Jesus ‘Master, have mercy on us’. They did not ask to be cured, but only to have Jesus show mercy on them. They had heard stories of Jesus and thought he might help them.

Jesus told them to go to the priest responsible for inspecting the lepers. Now, they all knew they had leprosy and I am sure that some of them thought this was a useless journey. But the all followed Jesus’ instructions and presented themselves to the priest. As they traveled to the priest, they became cured of the leprosy.

But one of the lepers, having realized where his cure had come from, turned back the way he had come to meet Jesus. He knew where the cure had come from and wanted to thank Jesus and glorify God’s name. You see, this man was a Samaritan – someone who was by birth an outcast among the outcasts. The Jews thought the Samaritans were the lowest of all people and would not have normally associated with them.

Eventually the lepers saw the priest and were declared clean. They were cured of the leprosy, but not healed of their dis-ease.

Often times, we are shown mercy by God and don’t think to praise him for his goodness. We often find it is the least expected that appreciate the saving grace; those who may not be raised in the church and Jesus’ teachings.

The Samaritan, but going back and thanking Jesus was made whole again. . . in other words healed, not just cured of the disease. He had the faith in this man Jesus and his faith made him whole. Not only did the Samaritan receive the blessing of a cure of his leprosy, but was doubly blessed because he saw Jesus and knew that he was the Son of God. Jesus’ mercy was two-fold: one in the curing of the disease and again when the Samaritan praised God.

Do we remember to praise God for the little miracles that happen to us everyday?

Or do we just note them and go on about our daily lives?

Are we the cured Jews or a whole Samaritan?

12 October 2007

Liturgical Angels

Daily Reading for October 12
From Episcopal Cafe

The range and variety of intermediary functions of the deacon have been emphasized in recent studies of diakonia. Ormonde Plater, for example, notes that in the liturgy the deacon “embodies two symbols, servant and angel” and recalls from the New Testament the image of the four living creatures guarding the altar of heavenly liturgy, as seen in Revelation 4. Thus the deacon, Plater tells us, is not only a liturgical table waiter but a liturgical angel—a guard and messenger, one who manages and conducts transactions with the outside.

In one of the earliest patristic references to deacons, Ignatius of Antioch, in his letter to the Philadelphians, indicates that one of the deacon’s functions is to serve as a messenger outside the liturgy, traveling between the churches of distant cities:

News has reached me that the church at Antioch in Syria is at peace. Consequently, it would be a nice thing for you, as a church of God, to elect a deacon to go there on a mission, as God’s representative, and at a formal service to congratulate them and glorify the Name. (Philadelphians 10)

Bishop Richard Grein has recently generalized the go-between status of the deacon in this way:

I like to think of deacons as people on the boundary, that is, on the boundary where the church and the world interface. On this boundary they sometimes face the world to speak the message of the Gospel. Other times they face the church to speak on behalf of the world. In this their task is to keep the boundary open to exchanges between church and world.

The media of those exchanges are matter/energy (for example, bread and wine) and information (money, words, pictures). Whenever the church is in transaction with the world, there is diakonia and there should be its deacons.

From “Serving Intermediary” by Frederick Erickson, in Diaconal Ministry: Past, Present and Future, edited by Peyton Craighill (North American Association for the Diaconate, 1994).

The seven preachers?

Daily Reading for October 11
From Episcopal Cafe

Philip, Deacon and Evangelist

Deacons have constantly been inspired by the story of the seven Greek men who were presented to the apostles who, in turn, ‘prayed and laid their hands on them’ (Acts 6:6). Tradition has seen in these men, and in particular the most famous of them, Stephen, the forerunners and prototype of the church’s deacons. Ancient authority and nineteenth-century scholarship give to the idea of an original seven deacons the look and feel of authenticity. And yet Lightfoot himself was aware that the idea of deacons so early in the church’s life—and in this passage in particular—had been ‘much disputed’. A prominent contemporary voice here would be that of James Monroe Barnett, a long-standing champion of the diaconate, who closes his pages on the subject with the plain statement, ‘we must conclude that the Seven were not deacons’. This too has been the view which my own study of Acts 6 has demanded. . . .

Luke does not use a diakon-word again until Acts 6:1, where he refers to ‘the daily ministry/diakonia’ (which we have already met in the phrase of the modern translation, ‘daily distribution [of food]’). Then, in the same part of the story, the Twelve rededicate themselves to their original commission of ‘the ministry/diakonia of the word’ (6:4). Luke then closes the scene of the Seven with the tell-tale phrase, ‘the word of God continued to spread’ (6:7).

With these touches Luke keeps us in mind of his major theme as he moves into the great preaching event in the brief career of Stephen, one of the Seven (7:2-53). With Stephen’s death immediately following, the theme of the progress of the Word re-emerges in the account of another member of the Seven, Philip, engaging in a mission to Samaria; Samaria is the first station outside Jerusalem and Judea according to the stages of the Lord’s programme outlined by Luke (1:8). This mission leaves Philip poised at Caesarea, the port leading to Rome (8:4-14, 26-40), which is Luke’s ultimate objective in the trajectory of the Word. . . .

What does this make of the Seven? It makes of the Seven a new group of preachers, directed at first to the needs of the Hellenists—note how happily the story ends at 6:7: ‘the word of God continued to spread; the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem. . . ’ —and then, after the death of Stephen in Jerusalem, to the wide worlds beyond, as begun in Philip’s mission (8:5). Indeed the only other time we hear of Philip he is called simply ‘the evangelist, one of the seven’ (21:8).

From Deacons and the Church: Making Connections between Old and New by John N. Collins. Copyright © 2002. Used by permission of Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. www.morehousepublishing.com

10 October 2007

Provide a Place

Particularly relevant in this day and age when there are still presbyters and bishops who do not see the need for deacons as a full and equal order:

Daily Reading for October 10
From Episcopal Cafe

You bishops, gather the faithful with much patience, and with doctrine and exhortation, as ministers of the kingdom everlasting. Hold your assemblies with all decent order, and appoint the places for the brethren with care and gravity.

And for the presbyters let there be assigned a place in the eastern part of the house; and let the bishop’s throne be set in their midst, and let the presbyters sit with him.

But of the deacons let one stand always by the oblations of the Eucharist; and let another stand without by the door and observe them that come in; and afterwards, when you offer, let them minister together in the church.

And if any one be found sitting out of his place, let the deacon who is within reprove him and make him rise up and sit in a place that is meet for him. And let the deacon also see that no one whispers, or falls asleep, or laughs, or makes signs.

For so it should be, that with decency and decorum they watch in the church, with ears attentive to the word of the Lord. But if, while young men or women sit, an older man or woman should rise and give up their place, do thou, O deacon, scan those who sit, and see which man or woman of them is younger than the rest, and make them stand up, and cause him to sit who had risen and given up his place; and him whom thou hast caused to stand up, lead away and make him to stand behind his neighbours: that others also may be trained and learn to give place to those more honourable than themselves.

But if a poor man or woman should come, especially if they are stricken in years, and there be no place for such, do thou, O bishop, with all thy heart provide a place for them, even if thou have to set upon the ground; that thou be not as one who respects the persons of men, but that thy ministry may be acceptable with God.

From the Didascalia Apostolorum, quoted in Deacons and the Church: Making Connections between Old and New by John N. Collins. Copyright © 2002. Used by permission of Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. www.morehousepublishing.com

09 October 2007

An Open Letter to the LGBT Community from Bishop Gene Robinson

Received this morning from the Bishop of New Hampshire:

An Open Letter to the LGBT Community
from Bishop Gene Robinson
October 9, 2007

Now that the Church has had some time to absorb and consider the recent meeting of the House of Bishops in New Orleans and its response to the Anglican Communion, I’d like to share with you what I experienced at the recent House of Bishops meeting, and where I think we are as a result.

There is NO “mind of the House” nor a “mind of the Episcopal Church.” In fact, we are a House and a Church of many different minds. We are in transition from the Church we have been called to be in the past, to the Church we are called to be now and in the future. We are not there yet.

I value highly the thoughts and needs of my brother and sister conservative bishops, who have no intention of leading their flocks out of the Episcopal Church, but come out of dioceses which, for the most part, find the Episcopal Church’s actions of the last four years troublesome and alarming. I listened to them when they voiced the fears of their people that changing our views on homosexuality is a precursor to moving on to denying important tenets of our orthodox faith, from the Trinity to the Resurrection. We worked for a statement which would reflect the diversity we recognize and value as a strength of our Episcopal communion. It was our goal to describe the Church as it currently is: NOT of one mind, but struggling to be of one heart.

My own goal – and that of many bishops – was to do NOTHING at this meeting. That is, our goal, in response to the Primates, was simply to state where we are as an Episcopal Church, not to move us forward or backward. Sometimes, “progress” is to be found in holding the ground we’ve already achieved, when “moving forward” is either untimely or not politically possible. And, doing nothing substantive respects the rightful reminder to us from many in the Senior House that the House of Bishops cannot speak for the whole Church, but rather must wait until all orders of ministry are gathered for its joint deliberations at General Convention.

While many of us worked hard to block B033 and voted against it at General Convention, it IS the most recent declaration of all orders of ministry gathered as a Church. The Bishops merely restated what is, as of the last General Convention.

Yes, we did identify gay and lesbian people as among the group included in those who ‘present a challenge” to the Communion. That comes as a surprise to no one. It is a statement of who we are at the moment. Sad, but true.

Many bishops spoke on behalf of their lgbt members and worked hard to prevent our movement backwards. We fought hard over certain words, certain language. We sidelined some things that truly would have represented a movement backwards.

I want to tell you what I said to the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the course of his comments, it seemed to me that the Archbishop was drawing a line between fidelity to our gay and lesbian members, and fidelity to the “process of common discernment,” which he had offered as a prime function of a bishop. I heard him saying that gay and lesbian members of our Church would simply have to wait until there was a consensus in the Communion. When we were invited to respond, I said something like, “Your Grace, I have always respected you as a person and your office, and I always will. But I want you to know and hear, that to me, a gay man and faithful member of this Church, this is one of the most dehumanizing things I’ve heard in a long time, and I will not be party to it. It reminds me of Jesus question ‘Is the Sabbath made for man, or man for the Sabbath?’ Choosing a process over the lives of human beings and faithful members of this Church is simply unacceptable and unscriptural.” The next morning, the Archbishop tried to assure us that he meant both/and rather than either/or. I tried to speak my truth to him.

On the issue of same sex unions, I argued that our statement be reflective of what is true right now in the Episcopal Church: that while same sex blessings are not officially permitted in most dioceses, they are going on and will continue to go on as an appropriate pastoral response to our gay and lesbian members and their relationships. Earlier versions of our response contained both sides of this truth. I argued to keep both sides of that truth in the final version, providing the clarity asked for by the Primates.

Others made the argument that to state that “a majority of Bishops do not sanction such blessings” implied that a minority do in fact sanction such blessings, and many more take no actions to prevent them. All this without coming right out and saying so. That argument won the day. I think it was a mistake.

Another issue to which I spoke was this notion of “public” versus “private” rites. I pointed out on the floor that our very theology of marriage is based on the communal nature of such a rite. Presumably, the couple has already made commitments to one another privately, or else they would not be seeking Holy Matrimony. What happens in a wedding is that the COMMUNITY is drawn into the relationship – the vows are taken in the presence of that community and the community pledges itself to support the couple in the keeping of their vows. It is, by its very nature, a “public” event – no matter how many or how few people are in attendance. The same goes for our solemn commitments to one another as lgbt couples.

I suspect that these efforts to keep such rites “private” is just another version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” If avoidance of further conflict is the goal, then I can understand it. But if speaking the truth in love is the standard by which we engage in our relationships with the Communion, then no.

Let me also state strongly that I believe that the Joint Standing Committee of the ACC and Primates MISunderstood us when they stated that they understood that the HOB in fact “declared a ‘moratorium on all such public Rites.’” Neither in our discussions nor in our statement did we agree to or declare such a moratorium on permitting such rites to take place. That may be true in many or most dioceses, but that is certainly not the case in my own diocese and many others. The General Convention has stated that such rites are indeed to be considered within the bounds of the pastoral ministry of this Church to its gay and lesbian members, and that remains the policy of The Episcopal Church.

Lastly, let me respond to the very real pain in the knowledge that the change we long for takes time. This movement forward is going to take a long time. That doesn’t make it right. It certainly does not make it easy. Dr. King rightly said that “justice delayed is justice denied,” but that didn’t stop him from accepting and applauding incremental advances along the way.

We have every right to be impatient. We MUST keep pushing the Church to do the right thing. We must never let anyone believe that we will be satisfied with anything less than the full affirmation of us and our relationships as children of God.

BUT, I will continue to try to remain realistic in my approach. I work hard, and pray hard, to find the patience to stay at the table as long as it takes. And I hope we can refrain from attacking our ALLIES for not doing enough, soon enough. The bridges we are burning today may turn out to be the bridges we want to cross in the future. Let’s not destroy them.

We need to be in this for the long haul. For us to get overly discouraged when we don’t get all that we want, as fast as we want, seems counterproductive to me. We should never capitulate to less than all God wants for us, but to lose heart when we don’t move fast enough, and to attack the Church we are trying to help redeem, seems counterproductive.

The two days of listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury and some members of the ACC were the two hardest days I’ve had since my consecration. (It was a constant and holy reminder to me of the pain all of YOU continue to experience every day at the hands of a Church which is not yet what it is called to be. Ours is a difficult and transforming task: to continue serving a church that seems to love us less than we love it!) I was comforted by the support I DID receive from those straight bishops who spoke up for us, and especially by many of the Bishops of color, who implicitly “got” what I was trying to say and defied the majority with their support of me and of us. I was even encouraged by many conservative bishops’ willingness to work together to craft a statement we, liberal and conservative alike, could all live with.

I believe with my whole heart that the Spirit is alive and well and living in our Church – even in the House of Bishops. I believe Jesus when he told his disciples, on the night before he died for us, that they were not ready to hear and understand all that he had to teach them – and that he would send the Holy Spirit to lead them into all truth. I believe that now is such a moment, when the Church, in its plodding and all-too-slow a way, is being guided into truth about its gay and lesbian members. It took ME 39 years to acknowledge who I was as a gay man and to affirm that I too am considered precious by God. Of course, the very next day after telling my parents, I expected them immediately to catch up to what had taken me 39 years to come to. Mercifully, it has not taken them the same 39 years to do so. The Church family is no different. It is going to take TIME.

I voted “yes” to the HOB statement. I believe it was the best we could do at this time. I am far less committed to being ideologically and unrelentingly pure, and far more interested in the “art of the possible.” Am I totally pleased with our statement? Of course not. Do I wish we could have done more? Absolutely. Can I live with it? Yes, I can. For right now. Until General Convention, which is the appropriate time for us to take up these issues again as a Church, with all orders of ministry present. I am taking to heart the old 60’s slogan, “Don’t whine, organize!”

I am always caught between the vision I believe God has for God’s Church, and the call to stay at the table, in communion with those who disagree with me about that vision – or, as is the case for most bishops, who disagree about the appropriate “timing” for reaching that vision of full inclusion. In this painful meantime, please pray for me as I seek to serve the people of my diocese and you, the community of which I am so honored to be a part.

Your brother in Christ,