Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Thought about Covenants

Covenants that must be explained by what they are not are in deeply troubled waters - baptismal and otherwise.

(cf. The Archbishop of Canterbury defends the Anglican Covenant)

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas for the (Un)Closeted Christian

Sermon for Christmas

Isaiah 9:2-7 / Titus 2:11-14 / Luke 2:1-20 / Psalm 96

The Episcopal Church of Our Saviour
Mill Valley, California

Audio Here

I was sitting this morning with a friend, a Rabbi, as our sons played together on the plaza in downtown. It was a brief, last-minute Advent break for me – the last breath before the plunge into all the Christmas activities of this year. He asked me if I had my Christmas sermon all prepared, and I had to tell him no! I was still waiting for the right story, the right theme to emerge to go with the outline that was starting to form in my heart and head. I recounted with a nervous chuckle that I seem to be writing and preaching best these days under pressure of deadlines. Somehow, it comes together just in time.

That said, it’s a little unnerving, to say the least, on Christmas Eve morning to not have the Christmas sermon writ yet. But that in itself, for my walk at least, is part of the expectation of Christmas – the “not ready yet” nature of the season, the table not quite set, the gifts not all quite wrapped, the house not quite prepared. But now we are here – Christmas is upon us – and in the words of an Anglican prayer: “It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be.” (A New Zealand Prayer Book, pg. 184).

And my sermon is here, because sure enough, early this afternoon, I stumbled by grace across a reflection that appeared on It was a reflection that captured the essence of Christmas for me this year, and for where we are in our common life – a startlingly honest and insightful article by Ada Calhoun (H/T to Episcopal Café), who writes:

It was Sunday morning in my scruffy Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood, and I was wearing a dress. Walking to the subway, I ran into a friend heading home from yoga class. She wore sweats and carried her mat over her shoulder. "Where are you going so early all dressed up?" she asked, chuckling. "To church?" We shared a laugh at the absurdity of a liberal New Yorker heading off to worship.

The real joke? I totally was.

Inside the church, it's cool and quiet. I read the Collect of the day in the Book of Common Prayer, which urges us: "While we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure." My recent layoff no longer seems like the end of the world. I take Communion and exchange the peace and listen to the sermon. As I'm walking back up the aisle, I feel reoriented and calmer, the indignities of the week shift into perspective.

These moments are not only sacred; they are secret.

Outside, on the steps of the downtown Manhattan church, I think I see someone familiar coming down the sidewalk, and I bolt in the other direction.

Why am I so paranoid? I'm not cheating on my husband, committing crimes or doing drugs.

But those are battles my cosmopolitan, progressive friends would understand. Many of them had to come out -- as gay, as alcoholics, as artists in places where art was not valued. To them, my situation is far more sinister: I am the bane of their youth, the boogeyman of their politics, the very thing they left their small towns to escape. I am a Christian.

It’s a passage that could have been written for us in the Bay Area, couldn’t it? And it sat for me in stark contrast to another reflection I read this morning google-listed as “The Meaning of Christmas,” a harsh one that seemed to be out of the fundamentalist play book about Jesus coming into the world because God was still angry with us – or at least holding us at his holy arm’s length – upset over what happened in the Garden of Eden or the contemporary findings of science, or what have you. . . That, in essence, the message of Christmas had something more to do with what we are against than what we are for. This was a message that to me that more readily captures the spirit of our age, but far less the true spirit or meaning of Christmas.

Ada Calhoun’s piece about being a secret Christian spoke to me and Christmas so much more deeply not simply because she attends an Episcopal Church, but because she talks in a profound sense to the central event of this night – this child born in our hearts and in our midst – almost in secret and off the beaten path – who even before he can speak transforms the very fabric of our lives. This child and his mother holding him, pondering all these things in her heart. . .

And how embarrassing it is – especially in a post-Christendom era like the one we live in; in a diverse and secular era where being Christian is becoming increasingly unusual and slightly odd – that we – conservative, liberal, and in the middle alike – gather together this evening and call this fragile, gurgling child “God,” revere him, give him every accolade we can imagine. And then we join the illiterate shepherds and the down-and-out to worship him, unnoticed, at first, by the powers and principalities of this or any age.

And how we as Christians walk with this faith every moment of every day somewhere at work in our lives, sometimes secretly shielding it from the harsh and cynical gaze of others, sometimes embarrassed by the militant clothing it receives from some of our sisters and brothers. We want to be courageous as a faithful people. Indeed, frequently, we ought to be. But our courage is not wrought on believing we are right and others are wrong. Nor is it wrought on a score-card of “saved” souls. It is instead born in this marginal way, out of the recognition that life is extraordinarily vulnerable, and that our God has not come to us with vengeance or anger or a cosmic balance sheet, but has instead simply and somewhat secretly come among us, as one of us. That our redemption belongs to this child who only knows right now that he is hungry, who needs the warmth and attention of his mother to survive, who needs to be swaddled and suckled and rocked gently by those who love him.

Christmas, a story of stories, is at once the story of the fragility of grace in our lives. Quite possibly it’s a sign of our times to consider the tender grace when there has been so much upheaval for so long around us – personal, financial, vocational. I’ve had people in my office at least once a week for several weeks now who have been wrestling with unemployment for many months – some over a year. People struggling to make ends meet, people in tears struggling with where God might be calling them next – when the most obvious and experiential answer feels like “nowhere.” Grace for them is fragile, maybe a bit embarrassing, like the Christ-Child, tender in the raw places of the soul worn down by the ups and downs of a capricious world.

Somehow, we expect a Super-God to swoop down and save us from the vagaries of history, the places we find ourselves – those places where we never intended to end up. But most of us learn sooner or later to stop pointing fingers and accept that we are often ending up in places in our lives – both difficult and easy, tough and wonderful – through no great fault of our own. Sooner or later our pretense at control over our lives gives way to a more realistic assessment that we are dependent and interdependent on countless others who came before us and who are around us. Most of our lives, quite frankly, are not within our control. The suffering and joys that we receive are rarely asked for, even more rarely bought or purchased. And so we struggle as our spiritual ancestors have done for generations with a desire for a God to rescue us, a powerful divinity to shore us up and hem us in. Or we have turned to our own devices and built economic or military juggernauts. But they cannot save us, as even they succumb to the slow erosion of time.

This night, we receive neither control over our own destinies, nor a God who guarantees the future. Instead, our redemption begins with this child, this fragile grace. The Christ-child who reminds me of the tender power of a smile or a gentle touch, the delicate beauty as we sing in one hymn this time of year of a rose, or a human heart revealed in a moment of honest humility. Of Mary pondering all these things deep in the secret places of her heart. These are the images of our God at this time. Not what we thought we needed. Not what the world tells us our God should be. And certainly not what we wanted at a vulnerable time! But this is the God we receive.

And this is a better God than we might have asked for or imagined. This is a God who understands intimately our plight and misery, our vulnerability and sorrows, the fragility of our happiness and the sweetness of our joy. Not an aloof God, nor a God in armor – spiritual or otherwise – but a God open and humble as we truly are when we remember where we came from and where we are going. When we pause from our collective hubris and realize the tender, fleeting grace that we call life. There is simply only one way to redeem this embarrassingly fleeting life for the Creator of all that is, and that is to enter it fully and take on every aspect of our humanity. To bundle up all our sorrows and joys, our disappointments and victories; to bundle everything that is us up in swaddling clothes and rock it gently in a primordial love that is eternal.

And that is good news as the shepherds gather and the angels sing, even here on the seeming margins of all that is powerful and potent in a post-Christendom world – just as it was in a little Judean village at the edge of an empire all those years ago. A bit embarrassing, perhaps, but nonetheless moving. Because now we know we are not alone. Now we know it is not simply that our redemption has drawn near, but our God has entered our lives, body and soul. And we are touched by that divine grace and love. . .and we will never be the same.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Picking Up Sticks

Sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
 Proper 27

RCL Lectionary, Year B

1 Kings 17:8-16 / Psalm 146 / Hebrews 9:24-28 / Mark 12:38-44

November 8, 2009

The Episcopal Church of Our Saviour

Mill Valley, California

Picking up Sticks and Offerings
by The Rev. Richard E. Helmer

Audio available here.

As we prepare to wrap up our 2010 stewardship pledge campaign at Church of Our Saviour, it is tempting to take a well-trod road with today’s readings and talk about the widow’s mite. . .for me to offer some kind of final exhortation to each of you to aspire to her generosity as she put everything she had into the Temple treasury. It’s tempting, because it would avoid the more humbling and, in some ways more frightening implications of today’s gospel.

Today’s gospel is humbling because all Jesus’ harsh words about the Scribes give me great pause. Truth be told, there’s definitely a side to me that likes to walk around in long robes, who likes being greeted with respect at Mill Valley Market. 
I get the best seat in the house during worship. And, when I visit people at home in my service as Rector, I am often given a seat at the head of the table! I hope the prayers I offer publicly are not for the sake of appearance, and I pray even more to Almighty God that I do not devour widows’ houses. Yet we all know that this parish has relied on the generosity of numerous widows over the past century to sustain our community and, yes, that includes the clergy salaries. Words to give me pause indeed!

In short, I feel a dangerous kinship with the Scribes, who were the keepers of the legal, religious, and economic apparatus of the first-century Temple in Jerusalem; and they were among Jesus’ harshest critics. You see, Jesus’ point about the widow’s mite in today’s Gospel is not so much about our financial stewardship, but about the unspeakably awful economic injustice that sat right at the heart of institutional religion of the day – in God’s name, no less. The Scribes were so wound up with the rotten core of the Temple system that they scarcely noticed the hardship they were putting on the poorest of the poor and the marginalized, widows among the most vulnerable among them. And the Scribes’ spiritual downfall is always knocking at our door. We constantly run the risk of behaving like them. Moreover, our claiming God does not automatically inoculate us against the pitfalls of grasping greed or the ignorance of real need that our drive to sustain an institution like a parish - or a home, or a business - can sometimes engender.

In today’s readings, I am most struck by the image of the widow of Zarephath picking up sticks for the final meal. Her words to Elijah, “I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die,” I hear not said with self-pity or sarcasm; but with a matter-of-factness that is both ironic and profound. Picking up the sticks presents a fidelity to the final meal, of looking into the face of dissolution and death with a kind of dignity that we might aspire to when we inevitably meet the end of the road; of accepting the vulnerability of our true powerlessness in a world where we cannot ultimately put our trust in any ruler or child of earth, for no matter what we or others do – sooner or later – we return to dust from which we were made.

This is a peculiar kind of faith that both the nameless widows in our readings today possess: a faith of embracing reality, however hard it might be, with a trust and an acceptance that are unnerving to the Scribes within all of us. This trust and acceptance are unnerving, because the reality of picking up sticks for the final meal or parting with the final pennies in one’s possession, as we hear about the widow at the Temple treasury, points to the radical poverty that is the truest reality of all our lives. It’s a reality that cuts through all the hypocrisy and vain grasping that can consume us. Truly, we own and ultimately control nothing. The pretense of the scribes is only a fantasy in which so many of us spend a great deal of time – too much time – a fantasy of control over our own destiny and material possessions. Honestly, it is a fantasy in which many of us are tempted to play God. And we must forever be wary that our religiosity and spiritual practices – the fancy robes and well-endowed furnishings – do not lead us down this road.

The widows point to the trust that rests at the foundation of true faith – a radical trust in God – and it is this kind of trust that God honors. For the widow in Zarephath, Elijah comes at the moment of greatest scarcity bringing God’s power to sustain her and her son through the famine. For the widow outside the temple, though we hear nothing about her faith, God in Christ sees her in all of her humble authenticity a faithful contrast to an unspeakably harsh injustice: one wrapped up into a social-religious-economic juggernaut presided over by the spiritually impoverished Scribes.

The irony of this contrast would probably not have been lost on the early Christian community that first heard the story in this form from Mark’s Gospel. You see the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70, and the fantasy of the Scribes was destroyed along with it. In fact, the Scribes as Jesus knew them were all but lost to history after 70 – their class, wealth, influence, and way of life, inexorably intertwined with the Temple cultus, would barely survive the resulting upheaval in Judaism – and what did survive evolved into something remarkably different in later Rabbinical Judaism. But the widows pressed on, and they even became of critical importance to the early Christian community, where they were tended and empowered, and some even offered essential hospitality to the small communities gathering in the late first century and after in Jesus’ name.

The widow of Zarephath became legendary – not only because of her faith and relationship with the great prophet Elijah – but also because she was an outsider, a foreigner. Everything was against her, and yet it was she who curried God’s favor. Her offering to God by hosting Elijah, even in the face of complete destitution, is turned by grace into sustainable abundance. Once again, God sees the world entirely upside-down from our point-of-view. The least among us are noticed and nourished. The nameless receive blessing. The outsiders become insiders. The first are last, and the last are first. It is yet another teaching for all of the time we spend grasping for ourselves that the truth of faith is not found in what we crave and or in what we hold, but in what we offer. That it is only empty hands and open hearts – jugs of oil and jars of meal sometimes running almost empty – that God can fill.

It’s this spiritual teaching that we are likely to find the most frightening, because it contradicts everything the world tells us about the way reality works. We are taught to believe that only those who help themselves succeed, that “up” means having more, that our objective is always something greater than what we have and where we are now. But this is the trap of the Scribes – a trap where we devour the house of Creation to the point that she now groans in crisis, where we forget too easily that one in six of our sisters and brothers worldwide remain uncertain where their next meal is coming from, where we are insulated from the naked reality of our reliance, and indeed the reliance of all the world upon our God.

A seminarian classmate who came from a village in West Africa once remarked to me that we don’t know how much we depend upon God until we are uncertain how we are going to get food for our family in the coming week; of facing famine with no clear solution. That is the spiritual and physical reality of the widows giving of their last, picking up sticks for a final meal and offering it to God. And it is this reality of offering, service, and reliance upon God’s grace that these long robes, our parish family, and our beautiful space and our prayers and practice of coming to the table with outstretched hands are all meant to serve. Any other purpose or meaning for our common life as a Christian community is probably just dangerous fantasy.

But the good news for us is when we take these stories of widows into our hearts and recognize our own poverty – even amidst our material abundance – we are living again into our real vulnerability before our God. A vulnerability that, when we offer it to Christ and to those in most in need in the day-to-day and even moment-to-moment of our lives, God will embrace. And we may indeed discover that our jugs of oil and jars of meal are replenished each day, not so much because of our grasping and endeavors, but because of God’s grace at work around and within us. A grace we can learn to trust as we pick up the sticks for each final meal offered to God and our sisters and brothers. A grace we can count on in all the chances and changes of this life this day and always. A grace that will, if we let it, get us and the most vulnerable among us through any famine, and sustain us with an abundant love prepared for all the world from before time.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Servanthood: A Thought

Servanthood is inherently subversive. Those who live into it steadfastly refuse to play according to the world's rules of power.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bread for the Journey

After a period of overwrought and half-baked arguments coming from various quarters on the late, great Anglican "crisis" there emerges an argument so nourishing that I can only call it bread for the journey.

Mark Harris has captured it here. Tobias Haller comments on it here.

But among Bishop Selby's most nourishing prose are these paragraphs, which speak to the very heart of what is happening right now in many places in the wider Church.

For me, it points to the very heart of Anglicanism, if not the work of the Holy Spirit in the present hour of our shared history:

A colleague and his partner were to register their partnership, and a number of us were invited. There was no suggestion that there would be a blessing of this union, or anything else that might cause incongruity or unrecognisability. But it did so happen that the ceremony was arranged to take place closely after the usual time of the eucharist in the local Church, to which the guests were also invited. Not surprisingly prayers were offered for the pair, and the eucharist proceeded as usual - or not quite.

When time came for the distribution of the Sacrament, nothing had been said about what was to happen. But the congregation knew what was to happen: they remained in their seats until the pair whose partnership was to be registered had received together. Where was this unscripted choreography learned? Obviously through the attendance of many in the congregation at wedding eucharists. But this was not of course a wedding - or was it? Might not this event in the distribution of the Sacrament have been a picture of what at an earlier time the Archbishop would have called 'The Body's Grace', the mediation of truth through the liturgical actions of the people, while the official Church was still struggling to avoid an affirmation it was unwilling to make.

I tell the story not to argue against those others who have decided simply to disobey the rules. I tell it rather to show that while the Primates of our Communion labour at the question of incongruity, a different perception of the truth is being recognised in the actions of the people. Nor am I telling the story to suggest that actions of that kind can serve as a substitute for a just and faithful resolution of a conflict which has hurt too many and lasted too long. I tell the story because even as hierarchies struggle to maintain rigidities in place, even as persons are hurt and their ministries denied, something else is going on, namely the emergence of the hidden wisdom of God's people, a choreography of promise, a recognition which the official Church will surely have to take seriously. That will not be (as the Archbishop [of Canterbury] quite wrongly suggests) because the Church will have ended up conforming to social mores rather than critiqued them; it will be because truth has been discovered precisely in the context of biblical and theological reflection and acted out in worship; and what the pew sheet I quoted accurately called 'the current panic' will not outlast the God whose message is not to be afraid.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

At Midnight

Sent to Bishop Marc by an unnamed author in prayer as Marc prepares for surgery next week...

Sung by the clergy this night at diocesan clergy conference in night prayers, set to "The Call" by Ralph Vaughan Williams:

At midnight I awake,
and looked up into the sky.
No star from among the stars' multitude
smiled on me at midnight.

At midnight my thoughts went out
into the darkness.
No luminous thought
brought me comfort at midnight.

At midnight I began to heed
the beating of my heart.
A single pulse of pain
was kindled inflamed at midnight.

At midnight I fought the battle
of human sorrows.
I could not win a decision
with all my strength at midnight.

At midnight I put my strength
in your hands:
Lord of death and life,
You keep the watch at midnight.~

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Bit of Tender Grace

Left on my voicemail by my six-year-old son while I was out yesterday evening:

Daddy, please come home very fastly because I'm waiting for you. I want to play a game with you.

God bless.

Bye, bye.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Two Thoughts

...on firsthand experience with the nexus of the financial and housing crises:

  1. Truly astonishing is the capacity of big banks to create huge bureaucratic messes with relatively small sums.
  2. It is hardest to go toe-to-toe with a bureaucracy where the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing ... and the institution has many more hands and far less grace than a Hindu deity.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Learning from the Floor

A rather gloomy deputy from The Diocese of the Hundred Acre Wood attempts to move an amendment on the floor of the House as part of a fun exercise in the legislative process during orientation on Tuesday. Cinderella and Captain Jack Sparrow joined the cast of deputies from the Disney Province of The Episcopal Church.

Now just who said Robert's Rules of Order are boring?

Watch for my upcoming reflection from Tuesday over at Episcopal Café.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Wisdom for General Convention

As I prepare to fly to Anaheim first thing Monday for my first "official" involvement in the General Convention of The Episcopal Church, a few tidbits of wisdom have spoken greatly to me in recent days. Here are two. . .

The first is an admonition for all of us offered with Tobias Haller's usual succinct wit:

One of the tragedies of institutions is that they so often betray their mission to preserve their structure.

Can't wait to see ya' in Anaheim, Tobias!

The second nugget of wisdom, while longer, offers an insight with which I am wholly sympathetic. In a way, it sums up why I have largely stopped opining on the formation of a new North American "province" hostile to The Episcopal Church out of various splinter groups. And it is offered by one of my favorite people in all of the Anglican Communion, Jenny Plane Te Paa, whom I look forward to seeing in Anaheim, even if only from afar:

I have, on one hand, become especially afraid of those very few bishops and archbishops of this our beloved Communion who have demonstrably indicated their unwillingness to serve the common good, and also in a sense to betray their own baptismal and ordination vows by refusing to participate in eucharistic worship with other baptised Anglicans in their insistence that God loves only some, and who further insist that there is indeed a portion of humanity who are not worthy of full respect, dignity or inclusion.

I have not, on the other hand, been unduly distracted by the clamour of these aggressive alarmists because, as one immensely privileged to move around the Communion, what I also bear witness to serves to relativise everything, and so it is with absolute confidence that I can say there are far more Anglicans getting on with the pressing business of being God's mission people than there are those fretting over whether or not inclusion is a gospel imperative.

I have believed and have been saying for some time now that for the sake of the Communion it is imperative for us all to look beyond the vitriol, the hysteria, the noisy gongs, instead to notice anew all that has and all who have actually remained constant, to notice anew all those whose dedication, sacrifice, service and commitment to God’s mission has not altered and will not ever be altered one tiny bit no matter how many threats, claims and abuses are being made at the level of male church leadership struggles. I have been encouraged to look again at the exemplary work and witness of many thousands of unsung Anglican men and women, young and old, lay and ordained, those whose lives of selfless mostly voluntary service, will not and cannot ever be disrupted by the prospect of schism, by legal claims and counter claims or by indecently ferocious doctrinal arguments.

from Episcopal Café

If you’re gracious enough to still be reading my occasional posts these days, you'll find a lot more from me and a sea of insightful fellow bloggers over at Episcopal Café quite soon. Thanks to Jim Naughton for generously welcoming more of my ramblings! For more local folk (or local at heart), check out, too, the Diocese of California's General Convention site.

Blessings all, and pray for everyone gathering in Anaheim, that the truth may be told with a grace that only the Spirit can bring and that Christ may move among this portion of the Body for the sake of all God's beloved children.

Friday, July 03, 2009

More Lessons in Faith

Listen to the audio

Readings for Proper 8

Our gospel this day is a remarkable passage, as it poses to us two memorable stories of healing -- one nested in the other. I don't think it at all a mistake or even a moment of sloppy literary skill that poses the scene in the crowd between Jairus' request and Jesus arriving at his house. Mark, for all of this gospel's efficiency in disclosing to us who Jesus is, wants us to sit and pray with this remarkable contrast of narrative -- to take in the incredible disparity of position between Jairus and the nameless woman in the crowd, and the one thread that connects them: the thread of faith. There is a profound lesson there: one of deep grace.

So many who approach Jesus for healing in the gospels demand some action from him, whether it's instruction, a visit, or a prayer of the Son of God. In this way, the contrast between Jairus, a faithful leader of the local synagogue, and the woman suffering for so long at the margins of her community, could not be more striking. Jairus is presumably respected, so much so, everyone in town turns out to see what will be the outcome of his daughter's illness and how Jesus will respond to his request. Everyone knows Jairus’ name. But the woman who suffers from hemorrhaging, rendered constantly ritually unclean and therefore likely an outcast, has no name and is virtually invisible. What they share is a common vision that they are now rendered powerless: Jairus by his daughter's grave illness; the woman by her having spent everything on physicians who could not help her.

Both learn that faith's day is truly when we find ourselves up against the ineffable mystery of our constant vulnerability. . .When we are most open to God because all our human power is rendered useless.

Yet there is a peculiar and fascinating edge the woman seems to have in this over Jairus, for she is the one who receives from Jesus nothing less than commendation for her faith. She is the one who demands essentially no action of Jesus, takes an enormous risk by merely reaching out her hand, forges relationship with the divine with a humility that should, in many respects, silence the lot of us. Jairus' daughter will be raised up, too, of course, in a great public spectacle. But the woman lost in the crowd is the one who possesses the faith that has made her well, a faith truer, deeper, and broader than the well-healed and well-positioned. When she comes to Jesus with fear and trembling, it might be because she fears to be scolded or worse for making Jesus unclean with her touch. Or perhaps because she has been an opportunist, seizing the moment of the pressing crowds and the hope stoked up around Jesus, Jairus, and his sick daughter. Or perhaps it is simply fear of reaching out without permission or even acknowledgment. Or perhaps it is because at last she has come face to face with God and turned herself utterly over, undone to the core and at last re-made from the inside out physically, spiritually, and emotionally by grace.

Those of you who were here last week may remember Jesus scolding the disciples, even, for their lack of faith as they were tossed about in a boat by the storm. Yet again, by contrast, we witness this nameless woman and see her faith commended. It seems that she stands, in Jesus' eyes, head and shoulders above the rest. And with that, we are reminded that our God sees the world turned almost 180 degrees from our perspective. The least powerful, the most in need, are those most noticed by grace, most vulnerable to it, most ready to embrace it. Jairus needs to be told to continue -- to stay the course of faith. The woman needs to be told nothing.

So then, what is faith? Far from simple blind assent or setting aside intellect, faith is, of course, founded ultimately in relationship. But it is the final hope, too, of those who are the least among us. It is the complete undoing of all sense of power over ourselves, and a giving up of everything to a God -- however dimly we may perceive that God -- who will. . .

Well, who knows what God will do?

From this woman we learn what it truly means to fear God. Not so much to fear God's wrath as some might have us. But to fear God's love. A radical love that does not simply demand a little or even a lot, but everything, down to our last shred of hope. And then remakes us and restores us to a vision that only God could hold: that God holds for all of us and all of creation until time is no more, death is undone, and we behold our Maker face-to-face.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Portia and Prop 8

The hollow case for Proposition 8 won a hollow victory today in California - one that I find positively Shakespearean the more I reflect on it. Remember Merchant of Venice? Set aside the rank anti-Semitism of the play with me for just a minute and recall Portia's clever solution to Shylock's sadistic collateral from the merchant Antonio for his failure to pay a debt:

A pound of that same merchant's flesh is thine:
The court awards it, and the law doth give it.

Most rightful judge!

And you must cut this flesh from off his breast:
The law allows it, and the court awards it.

Most learned judge! A sentence! Come, prepare!

Tarry a little; there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are 'a pound of flesh:'
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;
But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.

The Supreme Court of California, in a subtle but brilliant decision, ducked the veiled threat of recall by Prop 8 supporters and avoided taking the blood of tangible rights and privileges from same-sex couples. And I mean that covenanted blood protected - if not by marriage for those fortunate in timing, then by domestic partnership laws already offering equal protection.

There's more than a bit of divine humor in the Portia-like decision. Prop 8 supporters knew a direct attack on rights and privileges of couples would never fly in the polls -- even less so in the courtroom. So they settled for the idol of the term "marriage," but without real substance save perhaps social recognition.

That is now the true moral disappointment for couples seeking equal protection, at least it seems to me: the loss of the social recognition of the term "marriage." But time, the arc of justice, and possibly even the divine sense of humor are on their side. Separate but equal is a legal foundation of shifting sand. Legal "marriage" will be theirs again in the long run.

Prop 8 supporters may cheer over their "pound of flesh" and the slowly separating pottage they have unwittingly wrought with no fewer than three legal classes of protected couples in California: those "straight" and married, same-sex couples married between the last court decision and the passage of Prop 8, and those receiving rights and privileges under domestic partnership laws.

But the cheers ring hollow, because the "pound of flesh" is less substantive and more a mere ghost of definition under law. It has no tangible substance in California except a social projection without distinction of rights and privileges. . . a dumb idol, legally speaking, and perhaps morally and spiritually, too.

The hollow case has become the hollow definition.

Don’t look now, but Prop 8 supporters, for all of their money and efforts, have secured a Pyrrhic victory – one that has eviscerated their cause as they are shepherded into a cold, narrow definition of their own legalism just as Shylock was.

Thankfully, God's grace is more generous than Shakespeare. But I have to chuckle while standing in solidarity with my LGBT sisters and brothers.

Portia would be proud...


Bishop Marc Andrus responds
Zoe Cole offers more legal perspective on the decision
Will Scott offers moving personal witness

Monday, May 04, 2009

Does it Really Matter?

This morning over at Episcopal Café, Jim Naughton writes:

About halfway through weighing some of the issues that I’ve written about here before, I had a sudden realization: reflecting on Rowan Williams’ letter wasn’t a worthwhile use of my time; writing it was not a worthwhile use of his. The issues at stake have become so trivial—We are not debating right and wrong, we are debating whether there should be trifling penalties for giving offense to other members of the Communion.—that to engage them at all compromises our moral standing and diminishes our ability to speak credibly on issues of real importance.

This isn’t to say that we don’t have to make a decision about whether to accede to the archbishop’s proposal—and I suppose I think that we shouldn’t because it would only encourage him to make other such requests—just that whether we accede or not make very little difference to the world, to the Communion, to our ecumenical partners, to our church, or even to a Communion news junky like me.

I think Jim is correct. The fact that The Archbishop of Canterbury has very limited authority to act is not a problem, but a blessing. The Communion, after all, is not the domain of prelates, as some would have it, but a fellowship of churches made up of millions of people in real, embodied relationships around common mission. And that common mission is not fundamentally about who's ordaining whom, but about who's fed, healed, and nurtured in the grace of God. This is what we have to offer a world in need, and what our leadership is called to nurture.

The rest is largely window dressing.