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Advent 4   Leave a comment

mrpriest
The following is a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on the morning of 24 December 2017.
Scripture: Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38
Canticle: Luke 1:46-55

Today’s Gospel lesson, known in the Church as The Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary, or simply The Annunciation, is my favorite Bible story. And it’s one of the most influential stories in terms of art; I would encourage you when you go home this afternoon to do a Google image search on The Annunciation. You’ll find hundreds of paintings over the centuries, from ancient murals and icons to John Collier’s very modern take. Even if you can’t call to mind any images of the Annunciation at this moment, some of the pictures you find will undoubtedly be familiar to you. (Your search may reveal a few early images in which Mary is wearing a chasuble and stole—the vestments of a priest).

The story has inspired hymns and spiritual songs, perhaps most notably Hymn #265, which we often sing at this time of year as well as on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th. And three words of Mary’s response inspired Paul McCartney to write one of the Beatles’ most celebrated songs.

If you pray the Rosary, or grew up praying it, you know that the first line of the Hail Mary, “Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee,” comes from Gabriel’s greeting here.

All this familiarity with The Annunciation can desensitize us to its revolutionary nature: this is one of the most subversive stories in the Bible.

Let’s quickly address Mary’s virginity: the Church and our culture have developed an unfortunate fixation over the centuries on Mary’s sex life, and it has had an unhealthy effect on our broader conversations around sexuality, with some devastating consequences, particularly for young women.

Mary’s sexual innocence is not the point, and the message is definitely not that virgins have found favor with God and those who aren’t virgins are out of God’s favor.

The point—as Gabriel explicitly says—is that God can do what should be biologically impossible. This is God saying, “I know the parameters of human reproduction; I created those parameters; and I can transcend those parameters.”

Because what’s about to happen will change everything.

Mary accepts the strange news that follows the strange greeting, and says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” echoes the response of God’s faithful servants over generations to God’s call; look through the Bible and you will see those words again and again. They’re good words to have in mind if God should ever call you to anything.

And when Mary says, “Let it be with me according to your word,” Mary becomes three things: one, she becomes a mother.

Two, she becomes in essence the first Christian priest, consecrating with her word the body and blood of Christ—a fact curiously overlooked or excused by two millennia of male church leaders opposed to the ordination of women, despite Mary being depicted in priestly vestments in liturgical art for nearly that whole time.

Three, she becomes Theotokos: the Mother of God. Now, I recognize that may be a controversial term for some of you. Calling Mary the Mother of God isn’t to worship Mary, or to say that Mary is greater than or equal to God or Jesus; it is acknowledging and showing reverence for her special role and place—as Gabriel clearly acknowledges in the text—as the mother of the incarnate God, the one who was chosen for and accepted this role—risking her impending marriage, her reputation, and in a time of both high childbirth mortality and the stoning of unmarried mothers, risking even her life—and gave birth to Jesus and raised him.

So Mary is special. And yet, very much human, and very much an example for all of us: for each one of us is called to echo her response: Here am I; let it be with me according to your word.

Every day, in every moment, God calls you and me and The Church to do as Mary did, and give birth to the incarnation of God in the world.

Most of you know that Erica and I are expecting our first child in April. And we have had countless friends and relatives telling us, “Your lives are about to completely change forever. You can’t even imagine how much everything is about to change.” And it’s something I don’t mind hearing over and over, because I know it’s true: I know that no matter how much I can intellectually grasp how profound an experience becoming a parent is, I won’t really know until I experience it first hand. Neither books nor movies, nor having nieces and nephews and the children of close friends in my life can prepare me: the experience is beyond my comprehension.

So is this true of the Incarnation. What we will celebrate tonight, what St. Paul calls “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed,” was foretold for generations as the coming of a king and liberator of a great kingdom—and yet turns out to be not a king and kingdom in an earthly sense, but a helpless baby born to a family of marginalized ethnicity in a time of occupation and oppression, and a spiritual kingdom whose citizens strive to live in marked distinction from the values of the kingdom they physically inhabit. Even the Prophets couldn’t grasp the astonishing thing they were foretelling. But they knew that everything would change.

Shortly after the Annunciation, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is unexpectedly pregnant with John who will become the Baptist, and Mary sings the canticle we call The Magnificat, which took the place of a Psalm for us in today’s liturgy. This Song of Mary hearkens back to the Song of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel—another unexpected pregnancy—and it is perhaps even more subversive and insurgent than The Annunciation.

Mary begins, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” (in Latin: Magnificat anima mea Dominum, my soul magnifies the Lord) and then she tells us why; she paints a picture of a world turned upside down, a world in which God has scattered the proud in their conceit, has cast down the mighty from their thrones, has lifted up the lowly, has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty; God has come to the help of God’s servant, for God has remembered God’s promise of mercy.

The Magnificat is what love, justice, and power look like in God’s kingdom. It is the polar opposite of what love, justice, and power look like in our wounded world. It is the polar opposite of the greedy, heartless tax bill passed into law this week. It is the antithesis of the justice and power structures we see in our nation today. It is a world in which Mary’s consent is an essential element of the Incarnation, as is Joseph believing her story.

This song of subversion is part of the Church’s daily liturgy: it’s optional at morning prayer, but always part of evening prayer. If you’ve ever thought about memorizing a piece of poetry to calm yourself at stressful times, consider memorizing this canticle, and reciting it—praying it—regularly.

Note that Mary uses the past tense; these are the things that God has done. Even though Jesus is not yet born, and we may not see how justice is prevailing on Earth, it is already done, and cannot be undone. The powerful, the unjust, and the unloving just don’t know it yet.

Tonight Christmas begins. God is coming into the world through unlikely means: an impossible pregnancy through the consent of a brave and Blessed Mother.

God is coming into the world through the faith and love and justice of every person in this congregation and in the Communion of Saints—brave and blessed mothers all. And everything is about to change…

“Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a child… of his kingdom there will be no end.”

The Church As A Knife   Leave a comment

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Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961)

In Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961), a man going through his father’s possessions finds a small bejeweled crucifix; upon closer inspection, he discovers that the cross is actually the casing of a pocketknife. “What an idea!” the man exclaims, presumably in horror at the juxtaposition of faith and violence.

I recently watched the film Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015) about The Boston Globe’s investigation into child molestation in the Roman Catholic Church. The story of what they found is well-known: an intricate system built around sheltering priests—and more importantly, the institution of the Church itself—from public scandal. Bishops, clergy, laypeople, the criminal justice system, and even the parents of abused children all conspired to keep silent while great evil was going on. The Globe’s senior editors even come to acknowledge that they had the facts of the story years earlier, but shied away from challenging the Church. A whole city—and a whole world—was complicit in the hurt inflicted on the vulnerable.

It’s not hard to see the harm the Church Universal has done over the centuries: slavery, racism, genocide, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, child abuse, countless wars, and other corporate sins have all been explicitly or tacitly condoned by The Church, justified by texts from the Bible.

It’s easy and tempting for those of us in The Episcopal Church and other denominations that tend to be progressive in policy and steeped in social justice to wash our hands of those sins and say, “not my church, not my Jesus.” But while the latter may be true, the former is not.

One of the authorized forms of the Confession of Sin in the Holy Eucharist in The Episcopal Church begins:

God of all mercy,
we confess that we have sinned against you,
opposing your will in our lives.
We have denied your goodness in each other,
in ourselves, and in the world you have created.
We repent of the evil that enslaves us,
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf.
(Enriching Our Worship 1, pg 56)

I believe that “the evil done on our behalf” includes not only sins our nation and society do in our name, but sins Christians do in the name of Jesus, whether or not we personally or denominationally endorse them. We have a responsibility to act as a counterpoint to those sins. To, as the Baptizer says, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” To bring a loving, credible God to those whom the Church has instead shown an unwelcoming and unwelcome God.

And we have a responsibility to examine and confront the prejudices we harbor in our own hearts but would like to deny or disown. My own racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and capacity for violence are all obstacles in my service to Jesus and my fellow human beings.

My heart has been breaking daily since the election last November, as every day in the transition and inauguration of our authoritarian new government brings more news of rights stripped, protective regulations eliminated, and preposterous fictions presented as truths. This administration values money and power over God’s creation, industry and military over programs that help people.

But worse, there is an increasing devaluation of human life—or at least certain human lives: people in poverty, people with chronic illness or disabilities, racial/ethnic minorities, non-Christians, LGBTQ+ people, women. These are all human beings made in God’s image and beloved of God, and our nation’s current government does not care about them. In our name, the United States Government has denied their belovedness, their human dignity.

But what about the Church? What are we, as followers of Jesus Christ, doing about it?

I can point to dozens, even hundreds of Episcopalian and other Christian friends, along with Jews, Unitarians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics who are marching, organizing, calling legislators, and other great resistance work. Preachers, writers, and speakers who proclaim a gospel of resistance from their (real or virtual) pulpits. Servants who are ministering directly to people in those vulnerable, uncared-for groups. Churches that are declaring themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants and others in danger.

But I also see bishops, clergy, and lay leaders who won’t speak up, won’t do enough. Who say: “The Church should preach the Gospel, not engage in social justice” (as if the two weren’t inextricably linked). Who feel an obligation to make milquetoast statements about race, but can’t bring themselves to say “Black Lives Matter” (or if they do, quickly follow it with “All lives matter” or “Blue lives matter”). Who feel an obligation to acknowledge the Pulse nightclub shooting, but don’t acknowledge that it was specifically an attack on the LGBTQ+ community. Who refrain from making a statement about the election or the administration for fear of upsetting conservative voters in their pews. Who preach a false idol of “unity” that is not true unity, and serves no one but the powerful.

Perhaps they fear losing the pledge checks of wealthy parishioners; perhaps they fear losing their own earthly power. But in these conformist statements, these faith leaders not only fail in their prophetic duty to lead their people to greater discipleship, they fail in their pastoral duty to the vulnerable, marginalized people in their care.

And if we follow their lead, we become complicit in those sins.

Many of us in The Episcopal Church pride ourselves on our inclusivity: officially, all baptized persons—of any ethnicity, gender, gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation—are welcome to all aspects of church life, including ordination and marriage. We pointedly proclaim our slogan, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you,” and declare “you” to mean “all of you.”

But does it mean anything to our gay and lesbian neighbors? To our black or brown neighbors? To the impoverished families on our doorsteps? Does it mean anything to the women whose ordinations we defer while approving those of their male peers? To the women we ordain but under-employ and underpay? To the transgender people we say we welcome, but keep at arms’ length by using incorrect pronouns and binary gender language? Our policy statements are little good if they are only theoretical.

One of my Gregorian Brothers, Brother Karekin Madteos Yarian, BSG, lives and ministers to the Queer community in San Francisco’s Castro district, a ministry of presence and love to young people living on the streets, drag queens performing in gay bars, and everyone else in that community. Every day Brother K meets people who have either never heard of The Episcopal Church at all, or have no idea that TEC or any other Christian denomination would welcome them. All they know of Christianity is the religion that told them they were inherently disordered, that made their families reject them. Why would they bother to notice or believe “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” on a church sign? Even in a diocese that has been ordaining LGBTQ+ persons and blessing same-sex partnerships for four decades, the Church can fail the people outside its walls.

I attend a mixed (mostly European-American and African-American) parish in Denver full of committed, long-time racial justice activists. And yet in recent conversations on race, we white parishioners have learned that our black siblings have experienced racism from us. Even where we think we have overcome our prejudices, we have far to go.

When—either through our actions or our silence—we let the sins of the Nation and the Church go unchallenged, we are complicit in the injury caused by those sins. If Christians are not preaching—by word and deed—the God of love and the belovedness of every human being, the Church becomes nothing more than a knife disguised as a cross.

Now is the time to remember our love for God and our Neighbor. Now is the time to stand up and say in no uncertain terms, “All people are made in God’s image, and we will not stand by while any of our siblings are cast aside!”

Waiting, Hoping, Preparing   Leave a comment

fullsizerender-2The following is the text of a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on 27 November 2016

Happy New Year!

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which means it is the first day of the Liturgical Year, the calendar that the Church follows. The Liturgical Year is our way of following the life of Christ through the year. It is a way of marking God’s time even as we mark civic time. It is the Church’s way of reminding us that though we are very much in this world, we are not to be of it: we are citizens of God’s kingdom more than any earthly nation.

When I came to the Episcopal Church, out of the Presbyterian Church, in my 20s, I was at first shocked to find that we didn’t sing Christmas Carols in church all through December (except for the handful that are really Advent hymns), and that there were many Episcopalian families that didn’t put up a tree and decorate the house until a few days before Christmas. But in time, I came to embrace those traditions in my own life. And over the past several years I am beginning more and more to think of this day, rather than January first, as the beginning of the year.

Now I’m not telling you you can’t do those things: if you want to put up a tree this weekend and sing carols all month, go for it. Whatever brings you joy and brings you closer to Jesus is the right way for you to celebrate the season. But I would encourage you to find some way to keep Advent in a world that is keeping cultural Christmas. If you have a family altar, put a blue or purple cloth on it. Make an Advent wreath and light the candles on it every night, saying a prayer—or even one of the Daily Offices from the Prayerbook—with your family. One of my Gregorian Brothers had a pair of converse sneakers in the colors of every liturgical season; he’d be wearing blue Chuck Taylors for the next four weeks. Spend time reading a daily Advent meditation: you can find them online or in bookstores. There’s a wonderful book that I’m starting again this week called Watch For The Light. These are little ways to take time to keep the Advent vigil this season…

We begin the liturgical year not with Jesus’ birth, as might be the intuitive choice, but with the time before Jesus arrives: a time of waiting, hoping, preparing. In Advent we recognize three different kinds of waiting: first, the time of the Old Testament, in which our spiritual ancestors waited for the long-promised coming of The Messiah, a waiting that culminates in Christmas. Second, the Second Coming of Christ, that time of ultimate reconciliation that Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel reading. But we do not only see the waiting and hoping of the past and future: the third kind of waiting is this present moment: we wait, hope, and prepare for how God is being made incarnate in our own daily lives right here and now.

Waiting, hoping, and preparing. Right now, I think many of us are waiting, worrying, and dreading. We are in a time of uncertainty and fear: the racism, misogyny, xenophobia and ableism that has always been present in American culture is in ascendancy again, and in danger of being mainstreamed. We seem more divided than ever. How do we prepare with joy for the coming of Christ—in our past, present, and future, in the midst of such turmoil, distress, and division?

This morning’s readings begin in a place very familiar to us as Coloradans: the mountains. We have perhaps a unique understanding of the passage from Isaiah. In my nearly two years in Denver, I’ve seen in those mountains God’s majesty and the grandeur of God’s creation—a holiness, and even a certain kind of danger—a holy danger, if you will. I’ve heard from many of you who have lived here all your lives that the mountains are peace and respite—that the very sight of them is comforting to you. They are where Coloradans relax, and where we find our adventure and joy.

Isaiah tells us, “In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains…Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths.’”

So what if we were to imagine a mountain far higher than our fourteeners? A place where all the peace, respite, comfort, joy, adventure—and even that holy danger—are all magnified by the presence of God. Might that be a place where we could learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths? How might we bring that mountain to earth, into our own lives and our political realities?

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

The end times that Jesus is talking about could come this afternoon, or it could come a thousand years from now—or a million. We are simply told to be ready.

And what does being ready look like? The same thing that being a Christian looks like: work and prayer. Doing the work of justice and love that Jesus teaches us by word and example through the Gospels. Praying that God would make this world better reflect God’s kingdom, and then being God’s hands, bringing God’s kingdom to this earth.

“Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep… The night is far gone, the day is near.” What are the ways in which you might be asleep to God’s will and revelation in your life and in the world? What are the ways in which God might be calling you—through Paul’s words here in the letter to the Romans—to wake up?

Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, in her excellent book, The Liturgical Year, calls Advent, “the season that teaches us to wait for what is beyond the obvious. It trains us to see what is behind the apparent. Advent makes us look for God in all those places we have, until now, ignored.” Or as Paul says, “the moment to wake from sleep.”

There is perhaps no better season than Advent for noticing the darkness—in our world, in our nation, in our own souls. Sit a while with that darkness this season. Meditate on it. Talk with God about it in prayer. See how much it needs the Light of Christ. And then: Pray on your own response to it; see how you can cast away the works of darkness and be a messenger and harbinger of that light.

You may have thought that my earlier list of Advent observances was a bit on the superficial side. The goal of those suggestions was to get you into a mindset of living a liturgical year. Of living in the way of the Kingdom of God rather than the way of a nation that cannot ever truly represent the way of Jesus, no matter who sits in its halls of power. Following the life of our incarnate, empathetic Christ, who knows exactly what it is like to be regarded by an empire as less-than-fully human.

But I will now add to that list: observe Advent by living out the Gospel: by feeding the poor, by welcoming the stranger, by lifting up the oppressed. Work for justice: march for it, demand it from your elected representatives on all levels. Protect the vulnerable, by lobbying on their behalf, and—if you’re serious about the safety pin we’re all wearing, by putting your body between theirs and those who would harm them.

Remember that, no matter how divisive our different ideologies may seem, there is no division in Christ Jesus. We are all one in God’s love, and we are called to love each other in the same way even when we radically disagree.

Above all, do not be afraid, even when it seems there is much to fear. Remember that God loves you, as God loves all of us.

These are the ways we prepare with joy for the coming of Jesus. These are the ways we announce that there is room in our inn, and prepare a cradle for the birth of a poor refugee baby who will be our king. These are the ways we look with hope to a future where God’s justice will prevail and earthy governments will matter no more. These are the ways we see God’s incarnation in our own lives, today.

Besides this, you know what time it is, how now is the moment for you to wake from sleep. Beloved, the day is near.

Posted 27 November 2016 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Homilies

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That Time I Agreed With Ben Carson   Leave a comment

When I’m in a reconciling mood while talking with conservatives—especially conservative Christians—I try to focus on what we have in common. They may think America is in a sad state of morality because of Muslims, immigrants, and same-sex marriage, while I think the United States is in a sad state of morality because of racism, xenophobia, and people thinking that the word “America” is synonymous with “the United States.” But maybe we can agree on the sad state of morality and leave it at that. It’s not much, and it sounds like a joke, but trust me when I say it has enabled a few conversations I’ve had to end with smiles rather than in rage and resentment.

I was—blissfully—out of town the week of the Republican National Convention, so was mostly spared what from all accounts was the nadir of the apocalyptic warnings of the fall of white male Christian supremacy we’ve heard for months on the GOP campaign trail. I saw hints of the stories when I logged into Facebook, and I’m now filling in some of the gaps by catching up on last week’s episodes of The Daily Show and The Nightly Show.

And an interesting soundbite showed up in The Daily Show’s segment on Melania Trump’s  plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech. Trevor Noah showed a montage of Republican strategists defending Mrs. Trump’s speech, ending with former candidate Dr. Ben Carson giving voice to a thought I had been forming myself: “What we should be celebrating is the fact that a Democrat and a Republican have similar values.”

This is the first time I can recall agreeing in any way with Dr. Carson.

There’s a tiny glimpse of our shared humanity in the fact that lines that drew cheers from the GOP crowd were first uttered by a woman whom most of that crowd holds in disdain. One can take a cynical perspective and say it speaks to the meaninglessness of political speeches, the universality of banal platitudes. But maybe there’s a starting point to conversation in the fact that Right and Left seem to agree that working hard and following one’s dreams is a good thing. It’s not much, but it’s an agreement.

We disagree radically on many points, to be sure. But maybe there are points upon which we might agree if they came from different speakers, people we automatically dismiss because of whom we perceive them to be. Maybe in those universal points there is room to assuage some of our fears and seek greater truths.

At community organizing meeting yesterday, I heard a Lutheran pastor gave a reflection on living in ambiguity and paradox, about listening to one another when we disagree, repeating back controversial statements so that we can hear how they sound in our own mouths, and so that the other person can hear what we heard.

A sermon I heard recently made me think, “Yes, Trump and Cruz and their supporters have to realize that the people they’re marginalizing are beloved children of God, just as they are.” And then the last part of that stuck in my throat: I have to remember that Trump and Cruz and their supporters are beloved children of God, too.

My Gregorian Brother Karekin Madteos, BSG said today: “We tear our villains to shreds. Our heroes? They’re just villains whose fate has been deferred. Secretly we can’t wait to tear them down too. We just wait to see if they’ll save us first. And when they don’t—because they can’t—we tear them apart with even more fervor than our villains. Because neither of them can bring us peace. This is the nature of idolatry. Investing people and even ideologies with the power to tame our restlessness. To subdue our violence. This system is irredeemably broken. It reeks of our sacrifice of the innocent. We must reject the notion of either heroes or villains. There are only neighbors that we are called to love.”

Those of you who spend a lot of time with me know that for the past year I have worn a Black Lives Matter wristband almost everywhere I go. It’s a message that I see as intrinsic to my faith, directly interwoven with the life, work, and teachings of Jesus. That message is considered divisive by some. But if standing up for the marginalized is divisive, then it is our job as Christians to be divisive—as Jesus frequently was.

But the one place I don’t wear that wristband is serving in the Eucharist at church, particularly serving communion. I believe that Black Lives Matter—and other such messages of justice and anti-marginalization—can and should be preached from the pulpit and borne out in the liturgy in a variety of ways. I believe that people who walk through the church doors should be expected to be confronted with those messages. That White Fragility is among the sins of which God expects us to repent in that liturgy. But Christ’s table—that meal we share with God and one another—is the place and time for reconciliation. It is the place where we meet in a perhaps-rare—perhaps-only—place of agreement and end our conversation in a smile. Those who insist that “All Lives Matter” are just as welcome as I at that table.

We should always be raging against injustice, and always be loving those who disagree with us—even those who perpetuate those injustices. So as we call out our society’s—and our own—racism, sexism, homophobia, trans-phobia, and fear-and-scarcity mentality, perhaps we can find small things on which we agree, and start some new conversations from there.

Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe   Leave a comment

A homily given to the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory on 27 January 2015, the Feast Day of the three saints.

Old Testament: Malachi 3:16-18: 16 Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another. The Lordtook note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name. 17They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them.18Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.

Epistle: Acts 16:11-1511 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.

Gospel: Luke 8:1-3: 1Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

 
When asked “how many women on the Supreme Court would be enough?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg answered: “Nine.”

To the follow-up question: But that would be all of the justices; how does that represent fairness? She responded: “For most of the country’s history, there were nine men, and nobody thought that was unfair.”

Today we celebrate the feast of Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe, three early Christians. “Holy Women, Holy Men” calls these three women “Witnesses to the Faith;” Grace Cathedral has their figures—along with Priscilla (who has a different feast day shared with her husband Aquila)—on an altarpiece in a chapel, where they are known in the community as early Christian leaders.

We’ve just heard the story of Lydia—almost in its entirety: the end of the chapter adds a return visit by Paul & Silas to Lydia’s home, where they find a company meeting there: perhaps the beginnings of a church.

I want to remind you of what we know about Dorcas and Phoebe. First Dorcas, whose brief story is in Acts chapter 9, verses 36-42:

36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ 39So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.

Phoebe doesn’t even get a story, just a shout-out toward the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Chapter 16, verses 1 and 2:

16 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, (sen-cree-ay) 2so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.

The Gospel lesson for this feast day is a brief mention of the presence of Mary Magdalene and some other women—Joanna and Susanna are named—in Jesus’ ministry. The message seems to be merely a note that Jesus welcomed women among his followers and patrons.

You may have noted that the three lessons are very short passages; Lydia’s story is by far the longest, and it’s only 5 verses. When the Church in its wisdom created this feast day, it seems to have struggled to produce a substantial lectionary. It is wonderful that we celebrate these women and their roles in getting the Church on its feet—but it is a shame that there is so little to celebrate.

The size of the texts is no doubt symptomatic of the ancient world’s marginalization of women. Women had very little power in that place and time. Married women had their husbands to look after them, and widows—the women for whom Dorcas wove clothing, and perhaps including Dorcas herself—were entirely disenfranchised (thus the Bible’s frequent exhortations to take care of widows and orphans). Holy Women, Holy Men notes: “As what the Jewish community called a ‘God-fearer’ [Lydia] was undoubtedly accorded respect by the Jewish community, but still would have been marginalized.” Even this wealthy, God-fearing merchant was marginalized because of her gender.

Most stories in the Bible are about men. Sure, the Bible has a number of great female characters. But more often than not, they’re relegated to supporting roles—sometimes even in their own stories: Dorcas, for instance is a distant second to Peter in her own resurrection narrative!

But the size of the texts is also perhaps symbolic of our continued marginalization of women in our world and in the church. If the paucity of female-centric Biblical narratives is a result of the marginalization of women in the ancient world, what story does our contemporary church tell about women?

Four decades after the ordination of women in The Episcopal Church, female priests and deacons still fill far fewer pulpits than their male counterparts, and make far less money in the same positions.

I remember conversations at General Convention last summer about the lack of female candidates for Presiding Bishop. The defense was that almost no female bishops met the detailed job qualifications, such as having been a Diocesan for a certain number of years. But that’s a problem in itself! Why aren’t there more women Diocesans? We’re doing better than the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, but it’s still not enough—by Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s standard or any other reasonable measure.

Part of our role as religious, I’ve been told many times in the past year and a half, is to stand with those on the margins of our society, to lift them up. To share our privilege—and if nothing else, all of us in this community experience the privilege of gender—to bring them closer to justice and equality. God puts opportunities into our lives every day to speak up for women, and their equality in our world and in our church. We can do this through advocacy, through asking for gender equality in our workplaces, our ministry organizations, and churches. We can step aside to give women and girls an opportunity that we might have otherwise taken to serve or lead. And often, it’s even better to not speak up, but to quietly support women as they speak for themselves.

Perhaps a larger challenge is to think about ways we can ensure that a feminine perspective exists within our all-male community! Easier in days when we shared more time and space with our sister community, no doubt. But the world wants to equate the feminine with weakness, and I know that for many of us personally the feminine has been something to shake off, to abhor. But Jesus calls us to be counter-cultural—which means embracing the feminine and being stronger for it.

All of these things are true not only for women, but for other marginalized people who get even less representation in the Bible: racial and ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. We can be intersectional in thinking about the marginalized.

Let’s go back to these three women and their relevance to our own lives: Lydia is a merchant in purple cloth—known historically to be difficult to make, often reserved for royalty, and very expensive. So it’s likely that Lydia was wealthy. She eagerly listens to and receives God’s message through Paul, and her first act as a newly-baptized Christian is to open her home to Paul and his companions. In her generous hospitality, she becomes literally a servant to the servants of God.

There is much scholarly debate about how closely Phoebe’s role may hew to our contemporary definition of “deacon,” but I’ll leave that debate to the scholars and hope that we can at least agree that Paul’s context makes it clear she is a leader of some kind, and that her leadership is of a servanthood nature. “…Help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” Phoebe is engaged in some work to which Paul wants the Roman church to make available its resources, and he knows that they will receive back in some greater form whatever they give to Phoebe.

Dorcas’ story is my favorite—not because of her resurrection, but because of this line: “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.” This puts such a wonderful image in my mind, because I don’t get the sense that the widows are showing Peter rough-hewn garments made from scraps. I picture them showing him the intricate weave of the cloth, the fine stitching and embroidery, the beauty of the completed garments. Dorcas is not merely obeying the Biblical instructions to care for widows; she is giving them fine garments worthy of display. Peter brings glory to God in raising Dorcas from the dead; Dorcas has already brought glory to God in her work.

These three women are doing what conventional wisdom might consider “women’s work,” but what is simply the very things we are called to do in our rule, the very things that Jesus calls all of us to do. They each give of their time, talent and treasure; they are caring for and serving those around them. They are dedicated to prayer, and to learning and spreading the Good News of Jesus. They are living witnesses to Christ’s love in the world. Each one is finding her own particular way of following Jesus, of spreading the Jesus Movement as it takes shape in its first century. They could be us; we could seek no better models to emulate.

Society may not have cared much about these women; the Bible may not have much to say about them… But The Lord takes note and listens, and a book of remembrance is written of those who revere The Lord and think on his name. When we remember their names and their stories, we also memorialize the countless women who have helped the church on its way but did not get a mention in the Bible. Women across two millennia who have feed the hungry, clothed the naked, and welcomed the stranger as Christ in their midst. And when we support women in their struggle for equality and justice in the Church and Society today, we are remembering Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe. The Lord takes note and listens.

Posted 27 January 2016 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Homilies

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Nativity   1 comment

20130627-172708.jpgPhoto: Faith leaders gather at Grace Cathedral to support Marriage Equality on the day of the Supreme Court decisions. Bishop Marc Andrus of the Episcopal Diocese of California speaks at the podium (left).

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ 61 They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
Luke 1:57-66, 80

The Christian Church has traditionally celebrated the Nativity of John The Baptist on June 24. The feast marks half a year until Christmas—the nativity of John’s cousin Jesus, whom Luke’s Gospel tells us is six months younger. As John is the harbinger of Jesus—the Baptizer prepares the way for the Christ—so John’s birth alerts us that the Christ Child is on the way.

The backstory from earlier in the chapter is that Zechariah, refusing to believe that he and his wife could conceive—they are both “getting on in years” (verse 18)—is struck mute as a sign. At the circumcision, having finally accepted God’s good news in this child, Zechariah gives the child God’s appointed name and has his speech returned. He celebrates (beginning in verse 67—see below) by speaking a poem of praise, hope and justice (one of several such songs in Luke’s early chapters).

I see some auspiciousness in the occurrence of the two US Supreme Court decisions on Marriage Equality in the week of this Feast Day. After a long wait—months between arguments and the decisions, years between the original suits and the decisions, and an eternity for gays and lesbians who have hoped for this right—the court spoke. And we sang songs of praise, hope and justice in celebration.

And yet this is not the light, but it testifies to the light: full justice has not yet come; this is merely the harbinger of justice, a sign of hope. There is much to do—for marriage equality, for LGBTQ rights in general, and for justice and peace among all people. These decisions admonish me to work harder.

Certainly the other justice issues that have happened this week are even more insistent calls to action: the day before the DOMA and Prop 8 decisions, SCOTUS weakened the Voting Rights Act, allowing states to make it harder for minorities to vote—enfranchising fewer where we should be enfranchising more. And in Texas on Tuesday, the mostly-male state senate would stop at almost nothing—including trying to alter a time stamp on a vote—to restrict women’s rights. But one woman, Wendy Davis—cheered on by many more in the gallery and online—stood (literally) against them and turned the tide.

I believe with all my heart that this nation and this world are getting better, that things are changing for the good. That we are becoming more compassionate, more empathetic. That the power and privilege of straight white men like me is shrinking, and that we will ALL be more free because of it. Many days the signs in the news seem to be pointing the other way; horrible injustices happen all over every day. We are still too easily caught up in fear and group-think. But we’re getting better. In weeks like this—even in weeks like this, because of weeks like this—I see more signs of hope than despair.

As of this writing, Nelson Mandela is clinging to life. The great justice-worker has lived long and leaves an amazing legacy of changing the world. His example, too, calls us to work harder for justice. Bear fruits worthy of repentance.

67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

68 ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
Luke 1:67-79

Faith, Marriage Equality, and Lent Madness   3 comments

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Have you been playing Lent Madness? A few years ago two Episcopal priests began an online bracket/elimination game (and an unconventional Lenten discipline) to educate people about saints—some canonized, some unofficial—in a fun and funny way. (Apparently it’s based on something about basketball; dunno). This year’s winner—surpassing such luminaries as Martha of Bethany, Benedict of Nursia, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—is Frances Perkins.

Who? Frances Perkins was an Episcopalian who witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and responded with labor activism. She became FDR’s Secretary of Labor and a principal writer of much of the legislation of The New Deal, including the Social Security Act. She fought child labor, sex trafficking and wage theft. And she was noted for her articulate expression of theology and faith through all these efforts: her activism was inextricably linked to her Christianity.

I’ve cribbed the above paragraph from the Lent Madness entries about her by Heidi Schott, especially this one, and it’s well worth your taking the time to scroll through the LM blog to learn about Perkins and many other holy women and men over the past two centuries who have been moved by faith to action and service. I was aware of Perkins as the first female cabinet member, but didn’t know much more about her before Lent Madness, and I’m delighted to have that corrected.

This past Monday, the eve of two days of Supreme Court arguments over Marriage Equality, citizens in San Francisco and other cities held rallies and marches to support the cause. Grace Cathedral, seat of the Episcopal Diocese of California and my church home, organized a contingent of congregants and clergy to join the march from The Castro to City Hall. Two bishops, an archdeacon, several priests and deacons, a few lay religious, multiple Deanery delegates and several other laypersons all held signs, cheered, and walked with over a thousand people. Bishop Marc Andrus addressed the crowd before the march. Most of the Episcopalians wore shirts the Cathedral had made for the event, with the words: “Faith demands justice/Marriage equality now” (pictured above).

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It was a wonderful experience to take part in this not as a lone citizen, but as part of a faith community—to march with my church family as an act of prayer. To state publicly that we were there not in spite of our religion, not separate from our religion, but because of our religion.

The received wisdom on Christianity and homosexuality has too long been that “the Bible says it’s a sin, and Christians who accept it have traded their beliefs for secular humanism,” but that’s finally changing. The theology around the acceptance of homosexuality and marriage equality is rich, has existed for at least four decades, and is now becoming widely known. Christians who oppose LGBT rights used to claim they had the Bible on their side, but can now claim only one interpretation of the Bible; they can say they don’t agree with the theology or choose not to avail themselves of it, but they can’t claim it doesn’t exist.

But I’m getting away from my point, which is the intersection of faith and political action. On the same night that Christians and non-Christians were marching for Marriage Equality in San Francisco, Episcopalians in Chicago and other cities were helping to lead marches protesting gun violence. Episcopalians are also leading efforts on immigration reform, health care reform, economic justice and many other issues (and I don’t intend my focus on the Episcopal Church to minimize the efforts of the many other Christian denominations involved in social justice work; I’m merely citing what is most familiar to me).

Christianity has caused quite a bit of injury and injustice over the centuries by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. Indeed, The Church continues to cause pain, and will probably cause more in the future. It’s important for us to face that and repent of it. But the best way to make reparations and reconcile ourselves to God and the world is to do justice today. Faith demands justice. We do these things not in spite of our faith, not separate from our faith, but because of our faith.

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The author (far left) and other Episcopalians preparing to march. (Photographer: Katie Wilcox. Thanks to Grace Cathedral for permission)