Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Three R’s


 

These are the times that try a preacher’s soul.

My first instinct in any set of readings when I’m preparing to preach is to reach for the stories or some juicy little metaphor to get me going.  Did y’all hear those readings?  Not a story or a character among them.  (Throw me a bone, here!)  Just talkin’, talkin’, talkin’.  Jeremiah, Paul, Jesus.  All worth listening to, no mistake.  But man.

My second instinct is to go for where the shoe pinches.  What really bugs me in the readings?  Is there something I have a hard time swallowing or that I have a beef with?  Luckily, that usually yields a starting point, as it has this week.  So, brothers and sisters, let’s have a look together at the reading from Romans.  That’s right, I’m going to talk with you this morning about sin.

The first thing I have to admit from the get-go is that when I read Paul’s saying, “do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions,” involuntarily, my hackles stand up in anticipation of threat.  As a gay man in the midst of a culture war about my existence, morality, and rights, this language has more often been used to accuse me and my LGBT brothers and sisters of being intrinsically disordered, mired in disobedience and licentiousness, and perverse in our deviant insistence that there is nothing wrong with our God-given sexual identity.  So ingrained is this fight-or-flight response that many of us have rejected the language of sin entirely as belonging to another age of social control and cruel moralism.

Yet the way Scripture has been used in the centuries-long history of interpretation and church conflicts is not the final word in the value of these words that come to us across the vast distances of time and space.  No, these Scriptures are God’s Life-Giving Word to us, today.  In an act of humble faith, then, let us cast up this wheat and chaff and see what the wind blows away and what grains of nourishment will fall back down for us to be fed.

Let’s begin by exploring sin itself.  Sin, simply put, is everything that alienates us from ourselves, from one another, and from God. A theologian I really love talks about the three R’s of sin: refusal, rupture, and reversion.

We can refuse to cooperate with God’s loving will for creation.  Turning away from grace, from the great “Yes” that can allow our selves to open like flowers in the sun, we can say “no” – to life, to joy, to love, to ourselves, to our neighbors.

We can rupture our relationships.  Turning away from solidarity, we can dominate and ignore our fellow creatures, far and near.  We are capable of cruelty, neglect, destruction, scarring, maiming, criminal ignorance.

We can revert to our developmentally self-centered and impulsive infantile selves.  Turning away from growth, we can remain stuck in earlier developmental phases, unable to take the perspective of others, to sacrifice a small good for a greater good, short-sighted, driven by evolutionary instinct for food, sex, nurture, and power.

Refusal, rupture, and reversion.  Expressed in that way, I don’t need to make a grand leap of faith to believe in sin.  I know in my bones that all of those are familiar ways of being.  I look inside myself and recognize that turning away from what is good because of fear or inconvenience or short-sightedness.  I look around and see suffering in all kinds of relationships around me, between and among humans and also in the web of relationships in which we are embedded in creation.

And there’s more.  It turns out that sin is not just single acts or bad moods or mistakes.  There’s something about sin that is more pervasive, more enduring, more ingrained than lying to my parents or being mean to my sister.  It’s as if sin lays down tracks, habits of mind and heart that become unconscious and self-reinforcing.  We can even institutionalize sin, goad one another into it.  Yes, it’s as if sin builds a house, a lonely, dark, scary, ash-dusted house that over time becomes our whole world, everything we’ve ever known, more familiar than our own kin.  We are entombed slowly into a living death, cold and alone.  Or we spend our days and nights in the basement, shoveling everything and everyone that begs for our love into the furnace as a sacrifice to the false gods who will never be satisfied.

So what do we do with sin?  Is there hope?  Are we stuck for good?  Paul’s argument is based in a then-and-now contrast.  Then we were this, but now . . .  He is testifying to his conviction of the transformation that is accomplished by Christ in those who enter into his death and resurrection through baptism.

But what does that transformation look like?  Do we stop sinning immediately after baptism?  Are we perfectly faithful, perfectly hopeful, perfectly loving?  Are there only two choices: perfect or back-sliding?

There are those in the history of the church who have argued that baptism must be followed by a sinless life (thus the penchant for saving baptism to the deathbed, I suppose!).  But the mainstream of the church has understood that we are likely to fall down and get up again many, many times after baptism.  The grace is in the return and in Christ’s everlasting welcome.

But this transformation, this conversion, is a cornerstone of our life together.  We are called, again and again, failure after failure, to leave the house of sin for good.  Because God wants us to be perfect, to be slaves, to not have any fun, ever again?  No.  Because God wants us to be resplendent in our glorious humanity, full and free and alive.  But in order to live, to say “yes” to all that sparkly, warm, juicy joy, we have to leave the house of sin behind.  It was never our home.  I wish it were easy all the time, but it’s not.  There are impulses, influences, people, rules, habits, beliefs, and institutions that are dead-set on keeping us there, keeping us stuck and scared and passive.  But there are no locks on the doors.  All it takes is courage and the faith to put one foot in front of the other.  No one can do it for you, nor can you do it for anyone else.

All of us who are baptized have partaken in the mysteries of that journey from the land of sin to the land of salvation.  Having made the journey through the waters of death and rebirth once, we will always know our way home.  The trek is not easy.  It’s best to travel light, stay together, sharing meals and stories on the road.  It turns out that God is not only our destination, but also our constant traveling companion, our guide, and our food along the way.

June 26, 2011

St. David of Wales, Portland

The Rev. Gabriel Lamazares

Jeremiah 28:59 and Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

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It gets better

On Sunday, while St. David‘s worshippers listened to a wonderful sermon and experienced glorious worship, the Wild Goose Festival was winding down across the country in North Carolina. Here’s an excerpt about aspects of Wild Goose from Sara’s blog:

During the first evening, Nadia Bolz-Weber explained Christian denominationalism this way: she said that each strand of Christianity “care-takes” one aspect of what it means to be Christian for the whole body. For example, Anabaptists and Mennonites are the caretakers of the peace tradition for the whole body, which does not mean that the rest of us don’t work for peace but rather that there’s an emphasis there that creates identity and serves the whole body. Similarly, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics are caretakers of ancient liturgy on behalf of the whole body. I’d never heard it put that way, but it makes perfect sense, right? And of course we Episcopalians are all about ancient liturgy. That’s our thing, right?

It finally hit me near the end of the 3-day festival that there’s a huge undercurrent of pain and tension throughout, an undercurrent of which I’d hitherto been blissfully ignorant because….well, because I’m an Episcopalian. This painful tension is one of the marks of “emergence Christianity” as it manifests in non-mainline churches, that is, in the evangelical tradition all along the spectrum from conservative to progressive and beyond. It’s all about sexuality. Not just same-sex marriage, not just LGBTQ people in church leadership, but the whole ball of wax: does God’s grace extend, or does God’s grace not extend, to EVERYONE? My sense is that 99% of folks here at Wild Goose believe that it does extend to all, but many of them continue in churches and faith strands whose leaders are not so sure.

So, in addition to ancient liturgical tradition and sacramental theology, there’s something else the Episcopal Church care-takes on behalf of other parts of the body, care-takes with the care with which someone might hold something delicate and unfamiliar, for some, unsought. I felt proud, on Day 3, to stand up in an emotionally charged conversation about LGBTQ rights and social justice and say that as Episcopalians, we’ve been there, done that and, to borrow a phrase, it gets better. I know that some of my friends will say we’re not as far along as we could be or should be, but in our own institutional, hierarchical, tradition-laden way, we are, with blessed assurance, on the right trajectory. I want my friends at this amazing event to know that they are, too, and that it gets better, it really does.

Wild Goose, Peace Mass, and John Dear

This week I’m attending the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina. I’ve written some about it at Jesus Brunch. In honor of St. David’s weekly Peace Mass on Wednesdays at 6 pm I thought I’d share a highlight from today’s events: a talk given by Jesuit priest and peace activist John Dear. If by the phrase “Christian tradition” we mean specifically, the Good News as presented by Jesus and the practice of following Jesus, then peace and nonviolence are not only “part of our tradition,” they are our tradition. John Dear pointed out that the only thing about which all followers of Jesus can agree is that he was nonviolent. He concluded his talk with ten keys to living as disciples of the nonviolent Jesus:

  1. Claim your core, fundamental identity as a beloved daughter or son of the Prince of Peace.
  2. Be a contemplative and a mystic of peace. Spend enough time in quiet to look deeply at the violence within your own heart, and give it to Jesus.
  3. Be people of personal nonviolence. Think about ways to be nonviolent toward yourself (e.g., don’t beat up on yourself).
  4. Practice meticulous interpersonal nonviolence.
  5. Be students and teachers of gospel nonviolence.
  6. Be activists of nonviolence: “Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something.” Do two or three simple things every day to work for justice and peace.
  7. Be prophets of nonviolence: listen to the God of peace in prayer, and hear that God saying “be outrageous in the name of the Prince of Peace.”
  8. Be visionaries of nonviolence. Reclaim imagination through the peace of God.
  9. Take up the cross of nonviolent resistance to the empire. Be willing to die for peace.
  10. Being people of the cross means being people of the resurrection. Hope beyond death and see our way into the reign of God.

As our Wednesday evening community embarks on intentional practices of following Jesus, beginning with the Gratitude Experiment, perhaps we’ll do some reflection further down the line on following Jesus as nonviolent disciples.

In the meantime, our former seminarian intern Kerlin has been a huge fan of John Dear’s for a very long time, which is why she’s smiling in this picture:

In the beginning: creation and creed

In the beginning God created.

In the beginning, which actually felt like the middle of a nightmare, it was a time of chaos, formless and void. A group of Israelites were carried off from the land they loved by a tyrant. They gathered by the rivers of Babylon, in the middle of nowhere. They asked themselves hard questions: how do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? We thought our land was our identity. Who are we apart from our land? The answer they came up with was to tell a story that was bigger than the land.

The story starts like this: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. These Israelites sitting around the campfire in Babylon six hundred years before the birth of Jesus found their identity and their meaning in a loving, generous God who created the world in an orderly fashion, step by step, day by day. They could have chosen any of a number of creation myths floating around, but this story was the one that helped make sense of who they were and what had happened to them.

For a while I had a Bizarro cartoon on my office door with the caption: “If the God of Genesis had hired a contractor.” The picture showed animals with their heads separate from their bodies, trees not yet placed in the ground, half a man, with his legs lying very neatly on the other side of a field…. The text above the picture was “And on the 132nd day, much of creation was uncompleted, there was no sign of him, and he had not returnethed a phone call in weeks.” Some of you may recognize a piece of your identity in that creation story.

Celebrating this Trinity Sunday with the creation story in all its fullness has me thinking about other “In the beginning” stories.

In the beginning, my great-grandfather on my father’s side was a rabbi named Jacob, who lived in a small village in Latvia. He had two daughters; one of them was my grandmother. As a young child, she believed that she would be struck dead if she did certain things after sundown on a Friday, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. She was very afraid, and very careful. Then one day, the inevitable happened. She was out after dark doing something she shouldn’t be doing. God did not strike her dead, and so she decided there was no God. Later she regained a very different faith in something—she could never put her finger on it—but when I was a little girl I grew up hearing this story and hearing her say she didn’t believe in God for a long time but became convinced that something was in charge, and it was something good.

In the beginning, my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, who was a landscape painter, was riding his horse along the seashore about 35 miles north of Boston. He saw a dramatic rocky ledge jutting out over the sea and thought: I want to paint that shoreline. I wonder whose land that is. He fell in love with the land and the ocean view. Then he found a daughter of the landowner to marry. He knew God through the beauty of creation, and he told his story through painting upon painting of the ocean, and also through paintings of his wife and their five lovely daughters. His middle daughter grew up to be my grandmother. If I ever asked her about God, she’d sing, slightly off-key, “for the beauty of the earth….”

In the beginning, my own spiritual life was formless and void. I started coming to church in my early twenties and I didn’t have a clue what I was looking for, but I was looking for something. The church I went to was a huge, crumbling, drafty old building in Boston, a beautiful place with big marble statues behind the altar and music to die for. For the first year or so, all I did in church was cry. It was very powerful and mysterious to me, even my own tears. Being there in that mystery was the beginning of the journey that brought me here.

When I go back and look at the various “in the beginning” stories that have formed me, I can find the fullness of our three-person God active in every one of them. When I look at my crazy family, agnostic to the core on both sides, in them I see a generous creative force, a mysterious spirit, and behaviors that were clearly patterned after God’s likeness, even if none of them would’ve named God’s likeness Jesus.

In the beginning, there was no Episcopal church on the East side of the Willamette in Portland. In the late 1860s, neighboring clergy from the church in Milwaukie and from Trinity on the west side would make the trip on horseback to conduct services in various community halls and storefronts down by the river in the central east side. In 1870, a cornerstone was laid on Morrison Street between Grand and SE 6th, for the building that was to be the first St. David’s. A few decades later, a new building project was begun at Morrison and twelfth. The Eastward journey continued with the purchase of this property in 1947. The rest is history.

What is your creation story? What happens when you go back to the beginning? Where in your own story do you find the Creator, the Spirit, and the likeness of God who calls us to follow him?

In the beginning, a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. God’s wind, God’s Spirit, God’s life-force, whatever we call it, is present in creation, is part of creation, and part of us.

In the beginning, God said: Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. God does not say: “I’ll make humans to look just like me,” God says, according to our likeness. So what is the likeness of God? Jesus is God’s likeness. Jesus is God whom we can see. Jesus is part of the “our” in “let us make humankind in our image.” Jesus is the likeness after which God patterns humankind. The Gospels are instructions on how to pattern ourselves after Jesus.

The fullness of the Holy Trinity is not about doctrine, it’s about God with us from the beginning of creation and in all of our beginnings. We affirm and celebrate this fullness week after week when we recite the Nicene Creed, that text people either love, or love to hate. The Nicene Creed is another “in the beginning” story. In the beginning, God was present as he had been and shall be eternally. God’s Son came into the world as one of us, died, rose again, turned the world upside down, and sent the Holy Spirit to keep us together.

As the official summer season begins, both in the secular calendar and in the church calendar, I challenge you to do something different: pay attention to the creed. Listen to it. Listen for the fullness of God. Listen for God in us and God all around us. Listen to the creed as the story that is as unfinished as the story of creation, with or without a building contractor. Listen to the Creed as our unfolding story of relationship with a three-person God who is with us when we go forth, as Jesus commands us to do, to make disciples of all people, to continue the teaching, healing, reconciling work of Jesus in the world.

becoming edge species

Lord, is this the time you when you will restore the kingdom? 

Last Tuesday night in this sanctuary, I listened to environmental activist and teacher Starhawk speak to a standing-room-only crowd. Her topic was “visions of hope in times of chaos.” As I listened to her I wondered: when have we not lived in times of When are we not in need of visions of hope?

In the events from the life of Jesus that we observe year after year during the 50 days of Easter, the first disciples are experiencing some chaos of their own. Jesus has been raised from the dead, and the disciples are still trying to figure out what that means. He’s spending a lot of time talking about what it means to be community without him. He keeps saying he is going to ascend and leave the disciples behind to carry on without him, but I’m not sure they ever really believe him. Then comes the Ascension, described in the reading we heard this morning. As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. There is a prolific tradition of Renaissance paintings of Jesus being lifted up in the air and the disciples all looking up.

 So what are the disciples to do now? What do we do now? They lived, as we live, in an already-not yet time in history. God has already raised Jesus from the dead as a sign of the power of love over death, the power of community over separation, the power of hope over despair. And yet, the world has not yet been transformed into the Kingdom of God that Jesus kept talking about. People are still hungry, we’re still building prisons, young children are still being kidnapped and enslaved all over the world, and people everywhere who are sick and poor are pushed to the margins. Jesus has already proclaimed the Kingdom of God, told us to go ahead and preach the Good News, and yet it looks like the Kingdom is not yet here. Chaos.

In her talk last week, Starhawk introduced us to the concept of “edge species.” These are species of plants that move into place where two different ecosystems meet, for example, the sea and the shore, or the forest and the meadow. Ecosystems on these borderlands are usually the most interesting, creative, and diverse ecosystems, and the edge species that thrive there are ones that thrive in chaos.

I would like to suggest that we who are engaged in the work of transformation think of ourselves as edge species.

This is true if we are transforming neighborhoods from sterile blocks of individuals into places where people gather and build community. If our calling is to transform the lives of people whom others have neglected or cast out, we are edge species.  If our work is transforming hearts and minds of a consumerist, throw-away nation into communities of people caring for the earth both now and in the future, we are edge species.

Church, which at one time was at the center of what was considered normal life, is inching toward the edge. We live in a world where most people, even if they believe in God, don’t go to church, because the church of their childhood either betrayed them or bored them, or because their whole understanding of church is shaped by a small, unrepresentative sample of loud voices. Churches faithful to the calling to be ecclesia, gatherings of the people of God for holy food and drink, for healing and transformation, have one foot in the already of ancient, sacred tradition, and one foot in the not yet of a world transformed by love.

If we believe that the kingdom of God, the kingdom where transformation is happening all around us, is ours to proclaim and share, we are truly living on the edge. As was Jesus himself. The established religion saw him as an upstart and a rule-breaker; his intimate circle of followers kept expecting him to do more than he did. Counter-cultural every way he turned.

The theme for this year’s Village Building Convergence is urban alchemy: transforming spaces into places. I wanted to find some VBC prose about why you all chose that theme, and I did a quick google of “Urban Alchemy.” Instead, I found a treasure trove of other uses of that same phrase.

Urban Alchemy is the name of a psychic healer and tarot card reader in lower Manhattan with the tag line: “Transformation from the inside out.” Urban Alchemy was the title of a 2010 show by an architect-turned-artist and social activist based in St. Louis who uses pieces of abandoned buildings as vehicles for light and transformation. Urban Alchemist is a design collective for local artists in Brooklyn, creating outrageously beautiful mixed media housewares and clothing. Urban Alchemy is a series of work by artist Kuros Zahedi, who lives in Bellingham, Washington, where he gathers communities to clean up neglected urban spaces and then turns collected garbage into art, transforming ugliness into beauty. Urban Alchemy was a 2006 exhibit of work by twenty-eight Detroit artists using found objects to create life-giving expressions of how they understood their city.

Urban Alchemy, wherever we find it, is creative, transformative work, starting where we live and making community and gathering places where hope and healing exist alongside despair and chaos.

The work of transformation is the work of edge species. I think we live on the edge, not just physical edges, such as between city and country or between one neighborhood and another, but on the edge between one way of being and another. People who are part of City Repair and the VBC know all about this, about living on the edge between space, and place. People who are part of St. David’s know all about other ways of living on the edge, between the past and the future, between looking inward and looking outward, between anxiety and hope, between already and not yet.

I’d like to ask everyone who has been involved in the VBC’s work of transformation this week to stand up. Now I’d like to ask everyone who has ever been involved in work of transformation happening around this building to stand up. Now I’d like to ask anyone who’s ever been involved in work of transformation, anywhere, any time, to stand up. Look around.

Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom? Look around. Can I get a witness? Can I get an amen?