Monday, June 29, 2015

The Physics of Faith

[Sermon from Sunday, June 28, 2015]
We’ve witnessed a couple of historic moments this week, for our nation and for our Church.  On Friday, we had the Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized same-gender marriage.  Though you may be expecting some commentary along those lines this morning, that was last Sunday’s sermon – and my article in the Messenger on Friday, too.  Until the Episcopal Church’s General Convention takes some actions, I can’t say anything more about how legal marriage and the Church’s blessing of marriages may be changing. 
Then, yesterday, we had the historic election of the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, our first African American presiding bishop.  He is one of the best preachers in the Church; and his clear, bold, inspiring witness will help the Episcopal Church claim its voice in witness to God’s astonishing love.
So it’s been a big week.  And to help us keep our balance in this week of historic movement, I want to talk with you about something very mundane: what I do when I get up in the morning.  Pretty much every morning, unless it’s pouring rain, I walk and pray.  I take the same path every time, walking by the elementary school where I used to take Kathryn and Daniel every day.  As I walk, I see creation waking up: squirrels, birds, rabbits beginning their day, the occasional raccoon or possum.  And as I walk, rather than hearing the sounds of nature and traffic, I hear the sound of Morning Prayer, a daily podcast with the Scripture readings for that day and the collect appointed for that week.  The whole experience is predictable enough that I know, when I turn a particular corner, I’ll be hearing the Gospel reading; and when I turn another one, I’ll be saying the Lord’s Prayer.
Why do I do this?  Certainly not for the sake of variety.  Not necessarily even for the sake of rich experience.  Every now and then, I get a fabulous sunrise or some flash of revelation; but most times, it’s just morning, and I’m just saying my prayers.  Sometimes, in the ancient words of Scripture and the centuries-old rhythm of Morning Prayer, I hear just what I need that day; but sometimes, I really struggle to pay attention and keep my mind from the anxieties of the hours to come. 
So why do I do this?  Here’s why:  As I walk in the intersection of my very familiar neighborhood and the very Word of God, I’m choosing to inhabit God’s landscape rather than the world I’m tempted to create.  I’m choosing to define reality as the kingdom of God, the reign and rule of God, the purposes of God made manifest around me.  It will sound overblown, but in the rhythm of a morning walk and Morning Prayer, I’m trying to embrace the physics of faith. 
That’s what I hear in the Gospel reading this morning, this fascinating story of one healing embedded within another.  Both these stories – Jairus and his daughter, and the woman suffering from hemorrhage – both are stories about faith.  And by “faith,” I don’t mean piety or religious practice.  And I don’t mean signing on the dotted line of a confessional statement.  I mean choosing to inhabit the reign and rule of God as your operative reality.  That’s what’s going on in this story.
Jesus has come back to Galilee after the exciting boat ride we heard about last week.  Again, crowds have gathered around him – some seeking a smile, some listening for a lesson, some hoping for a show.  We don’t know what Jesus had in mind because, before he can say or do anything, a person of substance comes before him – Jairus, the leader of the synagogue.  This local mover and shaker humbles himself before Jesus, begging him to come heal his dying daughter.  So Jesus interrupts whatever else was on his list, and he goes home with Jairus, the crowd swarming around him.
In the midst of the swarm is a woman at the other end of the social scale.  The fact that she’s a woman is enough to put here there; but compounding the social division is the fact that she suffers from chronic menstrual bleeding, which made her always ritually impure.  That would have left her socially outcast, unable to take part in worship or other community life.  But this woman has heard about Jesus, and we get to overhear her faith:  She thinks, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well” (Mark 5:28).  She comes up behind him, touches his cloak, and immediately “she felt in her body that she was healed” (5:29).  Well, as we learned in school, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction:  Jesus also feels in his body that divine power has gone out of him, and he asks, “Who touched my clothes?” (5:30). To the disciples, it’s a silly question because the whole crowd is pushing in on him.  But the woman comes to him in awe, and she tells Jesus her story.  Jesus hears the choice she’s made, the choice to make God’s kingdom her reality.  “Your faith has made you well,” he says; “go in shalom” – go in the wholeness of body, the wholeness of spirit, and the wholeness of relationship that God intends for all of us.
Meanwhile, Jairus is waiting, maybe not so patiently, as Jesus delays the visit to his dying daughter.  And indeed, time runs out.  They receive word that it’s too late; but Jesus turns to Jairus and tells him, It’s all right.  Hope is not lost.  “Do not fear, only believe” (5:38).  So Jairus hangs in there, inhabiting God’s reality instead of his own.  And the girl lives.  Actually, the story leaves her physical state as an open question.  Was she really dead?  Was she in a coma?  Was this healing, or resuscitation, or resurrection?  For Jesus, I think, the deeper point wasn’t what kind of miracle he worked.  It was the miracle that Jairus, like the woman with the hemorrhage, hung in there with him, choosing the kingdom of God over the kingdom of anxiety.  Their faith made them well.
Now, it would be easy to see these stories in an individual, transactional way.  Here’s one track that line of thinking can take, putting the burden of proof on us:  If only you have enough faith, God will give you what you want.  You’ve heard people say things like that, right?  Just believe hard enough, and everything will be OK.  Believe hard enough, and God will make you rich.  Believe hard enough, and your sick or injured spouse will recover.  I hear people saying things like that, and I just want to strangle them.  How do you account for it if the miraculous cure doesn’t come?  Well, following that line of thinking, it must be your fault.  You didn’t believe hard enough.  Nice try; sorry that your loved one is dead; thank you for playing.  Yikes.
Here’s another way that line of thinking can work, and it’s not any better – putting the burden of proof on God:  Lord, if you’ll just connect with me deeply enough, then I’ll believe.  Give me a mountaintop moment, Lord, and then I’ll know you’re there and that you really do love me.  Put some spiritual gas in my tank, and then I’ll follow you anywhere.  This makes the accounting of blame easy:  God, you’ve got to show me; you’ve got to make me believe.  So, if I don’t believe, you must not have shown me enough.
The problem with both these approaches is that they’re based in individual experience.  That’s the way of knowing and believing that we do best in this culture, where reality is my reality and truth is the truth I know.  If you prove you love me, Lord, then I’ll believe as deeply as you want.  And if I prove my belief to you, Lord, then you’ll change reality for me – which is the very best proof that you love me.  It’s the circular physics of transactional faith.
I hear something different in these Gospel stories – and I think I see it in the world around me, too.  In this reading, the Greek word for faith, pistis, “is not a name for an inner experience, but describes primarily a committal of trust to God.”1  It’s a noun that’s very nearly a verb.  It’s staking our lives on God, with God’s reign and rule as the fundamental definition of what is truly real.  When we inhabit that reality, we find that divine physics moves ever toward God’s shalom, the wellness and wholeness and relationship that heavenly life is, the peace that passes all understanding.  In the Gospel story, both Jairus and the woman give themselves over to Jesus’ world.  The woman with the hemorrhage doesn’t beg or plead, and Jesus doesn’t even mean to heal her.  With the little girl, Jesus says no magic words; he just proclaims the kingdom’s truth:  “She is not dead but sleeping.” The reality they inhabit is that Jesus’ presence and touch will bring wellness and wholeness and life.  Jairus and the woman aren’t working on the right prayers or signing on to certain truth claims, hoping to order up the outcome they want. 
By the same token, I don’t walk and pray in the morning as a bargain with God for a good day.  I walk and pray every morning because it sets the reality I inhabit.  The elements of Morning Prayer paint that holy landscape:  asking for forgiveness, offering God praise, remembering God’s love story and proclaiming our faith in it, asserting God’s kingship, loving others through prayer, acknowledging my own needfulness, and saying thank you.  That’s Morning Prayer in a nutshell.  Offering it is not a transaction.  It’s simply a way to step into the reality of God’s ordering of things. 
In that ordering of things, it’s a lot less about outcome and a lot more about orientation.  It’s a lot less about our perceived need and a lot more about our alignment with God’s desires, for us and for all creation.  It’s a choice to step into God’s realm of wellness, of wholeness, of fullness of life and relationship.  It’s a choice for the physics of faith:  For every action of belief, there is an equal and complementary reaction of life.
So, as we stand to affirm our faith by saying the Nicene Creed, let us do so with our eyes wide open to the reality we proclaim – not just giving intellectual assent, or glowing in the fire of a glimpse of the divine, but striding boldly into our heavenly country and claiming it as our home.
As you’re able, would you please stand?

1.  Mann, C.S.  Mark.  The Anchor Bible, Vol. 27.  New York: Doubleday, 1986.  286.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Today's Step in the Marriage Journey

With the Supreme Court’s ruling today legalizing same-gender marriage across the United States, some of us will be rejoicing, some of us will be grieving, and many of us will be wondering what comes next.  Myself, I believe it is good and just that both the legal rights and obligations of marriage extend to all Americans, irrespective of gender.  It’s another point along our long arc toward justice, the journey our nation has been traveling – sometimes with clumsy stumbles, sometimes with mighty strides – since European colonists first set foot on these shores.

About what comes next for the Episcopal Church and for St. Andrew’s, here’s the short answer:  We don’t know any more today than we knew on Sunday, when I preached on this topic (see text in the last blog post).  Our Church, gathered in its 78th General Convention, is considering several germane resolutions: changes in church law governing the Sacrament of Marriage, authorization of the rite for blessing same-gender relationships that’s been in trial use for three years, and creation of a trial marriage rite for same-gender couples.  That trial rite was imagined for use in jurisdictions where same-gender marriage was legal.  As of today, that reach is potentially nationwide.

I say “potentially” very intentionally.  Even if (most likely, when) General Convention authorizes a trial marriage rite, the use of that rite will be determined by the bishop of each diocese.  That is true for all supplemental liturgical materials (i.e., those outside the Book of Common Prayer):  Each bishop sets the rules for how those rites will be used in his or her diocese.  Of course, Bishop Marty will not yet be able to say how such a rite might be authorized for use here, particularly since General Convention hasn’t acted on one yet. 

But I think it’s safe to say that the landscape of marriage will continue to change in the Episcopal Church and in the Diocese of West Missouri.  That would be nothing new.  The past several thousand years have seen a long arc of change in how the people of God have regarded marriage.  It was once a transaction between father and husband, in which the woman was basically sold.  Jesus and the apostle Paul sought to make it more mutual, with Jesus condemning divorce largely to protect women and Paul arguing for mutual submission following the model of Christ’s love (“Wives, be subject to your husbands … husbands, love your wives….” [Colossians 3:18-19]).  Today, women no longer must vow obedience to their husbands, and the Episcopal Church mediates God’s blessing to divorced people through remarriage and full participation in church life.  As is true for every couple, so it has been for the institution itself:  Marriage is a journey.

About this historical moment in that journey, some of us will rejoice while others will mourn.  If you’re rejoicing, I’d urge you to honor the grief of other brothers and sisters under this big tent.  If you’re mourning, I’d urge you not to give in to despair or judgment but continue faithfully to explore this question in a spirit of discernment.  Myself, I am proud of my Church for wrestling with this question of great promise and deep pain, faithfully standing in the gap and struggling to get this right in God’s eyes.  It is not easy work, and I hope you’ll keep the bishops and deputies of General Convention in your prayers.

And let me ask this, too.  As I said on Sunday, our best response to same-gender marriage, and every other issue that threatens to divide us, is to take a deep breath.  Trust that Jesus Christ, the sovereign Lord of the universe, will guide us on this issue as he does in all our common life.  Remember what he said to the disciples as their small boat was being slapped by wind and wave:  “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:41).  Help us, Lord Christ, to trust in your power to still the storm.  And make us your prophets of holy calm.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Prophetic Calm

[Sermon from Sunday, June 21, 2015]
First, a quick note about one of the musical selections this morning.  If you’ve looked ahead, you’ll see that we’re singing “Eternal Father, strong to save” as the final hymn – also famously known as the Navy Hymn.  That choice was made to honor our eternal and heavenly Father on this Father’s Day.  It is not a sign that all the rain has finally caught up with us and that we now believe we live at sea.
But on the other hand … let me play with that idea just a bit.  Maybe “at sea” is exactly where we live.  And maybe this grand church, the inverted ship that gives our nave its shape – maybe this is indeed our home on the storm-tossed sea of these deeply uncertain times.  Today, we grieve with the people of Charleston, South Carolina; with our brothers and sisters in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; and with the people here in our city who came together on Thursday for a vigil at Bethel AME Church.  Just as five of us from St. Andrew’s prayed there on Thursday, we pray here this morning for the healing of hatred, for the kingdom of the God of Love to break through the violence of racism that scars and disfigures our national life. 
This week, we may find ourselves tossed by another wave on our uncertain seas.  Any day now, we expect a ruling from the Supreme Court about nothing less than the legal definition of marriage.  And as the Episcopal Church’s General Convention meets this week and next, it will consider changes in the church law that governs the Sacrament of Marriage, too.  More on that in a minute.
So, listening to today’s Gospel reading, maybe we have more in common with the disciples than we might like.  Jesus invites them to “go across to the other side” of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35) – a nice little boat ride to get away from the crowds.  But out on the water, the little boat meets raging winds, and the storm threatens to take them down.  If a bunch of fishermen are scared on the water, there’s probably good reason to be scared.  And, by the way, where is their Lord and master?  Asleep on a cushion, out of harm’s way.  Really?  Finally, the disciples can’t take it anymore; they wake Jesus up and yell at him, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re perishing?!” (Mark 4:38).  Jesus looks at them, and shakes his head, and commands the wind and the sea to be still.  It works.  The display of power is, literally, awesome.  But Jesus was proclaiming his real message as he slept on the cushion.  It may be the only instance in Scripture of prophetic napping.  “Why are you afraid?” he asks them.  “Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:41)  Take a deep breath, he says.  Follow my lead.  Sometimes calm is a prophet’s best way to speak for God.
This morning, I want to focus on the storm of same-gender marriage.  When the Supreme Court issues its ruling, and as General Convention discusses same-gender marriage in the Church, the cable news networks will have a field day.  So we should get ready for the wind to blow. 
Of course, strong winds blow when high-pressure systems and low-pressure systems come together.  In the Church, the low-pressure system in which we’ve been living is a trial liturgy to bless the lifelong covenants of same-gender couples.  We haven’t had a request to use that liturgy here at St. Andrew’s – not yet – but we’ve had a long and holy conversation about it among the Vestry and with our bishop.  At this year’s General Convention, we were scheduled to evaluate that trial rite of blessing and determine whether and how to authorize it for ongoing use.
That’s the comparatively low-pressure system.  The higher-pressure system is the movement toward marriage equality in our nation.  As you know, state laws governing marriage are chaotic – generously described as a patchwork, though patchwork quilts are usually more beautiful than the mess in which we’re living.  A same-gender couple may be married in Iowa, but if they move to St. Louis, they’re … well, other than being deeply in love and committed to each other, their status is undefined because of a combination of Missouri law and two appellate-court rulings.  And that’s the problem.  Currently, 11 states have adopted marriage equality explicitly, and 26 others are under court rulings that make it the law there.  Thirteen states, including Missouri, have explicitly made same-gender marriage illegal.1  Now we wait for a Supreme Court ruling on whether state laws restricting marriage to a man and a woman are constitutional. 
What does that have to do with the Church?  Well, marriage is the only remaining part of our social life in which the Church is directly enmeshed with the state.  When Mtr. Anne, or Fr. Marcus, or I stand up here and preside at couple’s wedding, we are acting simultaneously as officers of the state and as sacramental ministers of the Church.  I sign my name on the marriage license, for the moment an officer of county government; and I sign my name in the Church’s record book, a minister who’s helped mediate an outward and visible sign of the immense grace of God.  It’s one of the more schizophrenic moments in the life of a clergy person – at least an American clergy person.  If I were in England, where the Church is part of the state, I could make sense of it.  Here, I’ve always been told we value the separation of Church and state.  Except on wedding days.
So, amid the national conversation about marriage equality, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention will consider several resolutions about marriage.  One would change the Church’s laws about holy matrimony to make the language gender-neutral, removing references to “a man and a woman” and “husband and wife.”  Another resolution would approve the service text for the blessing of a lifelong covenant, which has been in trial use for the past three years.  And another would approve trial forms of a marriage rite applicable to same-gender couples, for use in those places where same-gender marriage is legal. 
At the level of policies and principles, I think we need to strive for consistency in the way we articulate the love of Jesus Christ and our call to live that love with every breath we take.  Although “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Emerson said, I do think it’s really helpful for a Church’s governing documents not to be in direct disagreement with each other.  Our marriage rite in the Book of Common Prayer says about as clearly as possible that marriage is between a man and a woman.  So if we change the Church’s laws to say something different – even though it’s from a desire to embody love and justice – we’ll end up further confusing an already confused situation.  If we’re going to make the marriage canons gender-neutral, and if we want to be consistent in our theology and governance, we should begin the process of changing the marriage rite in the prayer book, too, so that its language isn’t bound to gender.  Perhaps we end up with a Rite I and a Rite II for marriage, as we have for Holy Communion.  Now, changing material in the prayer book is a storm of its own, and (like marriage itself) it “is something not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly” (BCP 423).  But it would be honest.
So there you have the level of principles and theology.  Most of us – we who aren’t bishops or convention deputies – most of us don’t live there, day to day.  We live at the level of loving the person in front of you.  That’s our common life, where theology and policy become loving pastoral care.  I can tell you this much:  We have had a request for a same-gender marriage, which I am not legally allowed to perform in Missouri (at least not this week).  Even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality tomorrow, Bishop Marty would still have to determine whether and how West Missouri congregations might implement it.  So I can’t tell you yet what will come of that specific request.  But I can tell you that marriage is changing in our nation, and those changes will affect the life of the Episcopal Church here in West Missouri, sooner or later. 
Now, you don’t have to agree with me about this, but I want to say:  I believe that’s a good thing.  I’m proud to be part of a family of Christians that has been traveling along a path toward justice in how we practice love with the members of our household who are gay and lesbian.  And I’m proud that this family of Christians struggles authentically as it travels that path.  We move far too quickly for some and far too slowly for others.  For me, a member of the radical middle, that tells me we’re doing our best to honor the voices of all who gather under this big tent, faithfully discerning how to journey toward God’s love and justice.
So, as we move into General Convention, and as we see the reports on Fox News and MSNBC about how the Episcopalians are considering sea changes in the definition of marriage, what shall we do, here at our level?  Let me make three suggestions. 
First, don’t believe everything you hear.  To learn what’s happening at General Convention, I’d trust the reporting of the Episcopal News Service over the talking heads on either side of the politically charged debate.
Second, when people ask you what the heck you crazy Episcopalians are doing now, here’s a suggested response:  We’re wrestling, honestly and lovingly, with the fact that a major institution in our society is in a state of flux.  Some faith communities will meet that challenge by retrenching and wishing the conversation had never come.  Well, it has.  And this is not the first time.  The Church’s views on marriage, and the institution of marriage itself, are very different in 2015 than they were in 1915 or 1815 or 1715.  If you don’t believe me, ask a woman who no longer must vow to obey her husband.  Ask a woman who can now own property in her own right.  Ask a biracial couple who can now be legally married.  Or ask a divorced person who is now welcome to receive Communion and be remarried in this Church.  The Episcopal Church may be messy, but at least we’re trying to do honest theological reflection and create policies that, first and foremost, embody love and justice.  I think Jesus is on board with that.
And here’s a third suggestion:  Remember and reflect on Jesus’ question to his followers in the Gospel reading today:  “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40).  The issues that scream at us over cable news, the changes we see happening in our culture, the breaking down of barriers that once comforted us in happy isolation – these are, indeed, winds and waves battering our small boat.  But Jesus was “in the stern, asleep on the cushion” (Mark 4:39).  Jesus was engaged in an act of prophetic napping.  Jesus was literally the calm in the storm, and he calls us to follow his example.  We hear it throughout the Bible, this narrative of God’s loving sovereignty.  With the disciples, we’re tempted to ask, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38)  But as God said to Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4).  As our psalm today says, the Lord commands and raises the stormy wind but also brings us out from our distress.  Jesus’ silent reply to our fear is the Father’s reply, as well:  “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).   
Help us, Lord Christ, to trust in your power to still the storm.  And make us your prophets of holy calm.