True Religion

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.  (BCP 233)

I just read for you again the prayer from the beginning of our service, the Collect. We pray one of this short prayers at each service on Sunday morning. The Collect helps us transition from getting here to being here, and introduces the Scriptures we are about to hear. Most of these short prayers are thousands of years old, like the one we heard today, and many of them bear the stamp of their first translator into English, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, like the one we heard today.

Cranmer was a poet, and a contemplative. He believed in the power of language to move the soul. For thousands of years, the priests had intoned the earlier version of this prayer in Latin. They asked God simply “to increase in us religion.” Cranmer added the word “true.” Thomas was Archbishop during the time of the Reformation, when there were several competing religions. He thought: “We might need to specify. Increase in us true religion.”

This prayer holds the genius of the poet. Because it makes us ask, what is TRUE religion? Cranmer wants you to wrestle, to pray for TRUE religion.

True religion doesn’t come easily. Take a look at Moses.

Now, you have to know where Moses finds himself for this story to make sense. Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter last week, pulled out of the river in the basket. He grew up in the royal household. Moses knows privilege. Then something happened that changed Moses’ whole lot in life. But then he sees the way that the Egyptians are treating the Hebrews. He sees the injustice. Moses defends one of his kinsfolk when an Egyptian master is beating the Hebrew. Maybe Moses goes to far. Moses kills the Egyptian. He buries him in the sand. Then he runs. Moses gets out of Dodge.

Which is how he finds himself tending the flock of his Father-in-law Jethro. Now, this is not a comfortable place. Moses grew up in the palace.  He’s a bit of a city boy. Tending your father-in-law’s flock is not where you wanted to end up in the ancient world. (Working for your father-in-law is hardly ever where anyone wants to end up). Moses is on the lamb. He has no where to go, no prospects. He’s stuck.

Moses is out there, the Bible tells us, “beyond the wilderness,” and he hears a voice: “Moses, Moses.” Notice, God has to say his name twice to get his attention. God is persistent, even when humans are resistant. “Moses” God goes on: “I am the God of Abraham.” I am the God of Isaac and Jacob. God establishes continuity. Then God turns the page.

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings”

This encounter with Moses shows us the something critical about our God. God is a God with a bias. God stands on the side of the oppressed. God works actively for the liberation of people from slavery, from bondage. God is a God who seeks out the least, the lost, the left out. The rest of the story of Exodus, in many ways the rest of the story of the Hebrew Bible, and the story of the followers of Jesus is a living out of this revelation of God to Moses: “I have heard their cry.” God is not a God who blesses the powerful and leaves the weak out in the cold. Quite the opposite. Here’s one of the tests of true religion: True religion responds to the cry of the suffering.

As the great theologian Howard Thurman once asked, What does your religion have to say to people with the “backs against a wall?”

“I have heard the cry of my people, and I have come down to deliver them.” This is where the passage gets really interesting. The story turns really fast. Did you catch it? God says, I have come down to deliver them. You could almost imagine Moses turning his head around looking for God. Where? Where are you? It will be a long time before Moses sees God. Instead God says, I have come to deliver them, so Moses, Moses I’m sending you. YOU go talk to Pharaoh. “Go Down Moses. Way down in Egypt Land. Tell Old Pharaoh, to let my people Go.”

You sort of feel for Moses in this moment. God has just said “I am coming down.” Moses probably got excited. He was nervous to see God’s face, but I’m sure he was eager to see God’s action. He was eager to see God right the wrongs, to turn back the tide of injustice. And then God says, “it’s on you Moses.”

It’s a bit like what Jesus says to his followers this morning: “Take up your cross.”

I feel for Moses this morning, surprised by an overwhelming task from God. I also feel for Peter. Today we read Jesus’ harshest rebuke . “Get behind me Satan.” I feel for Peter this morning. If I’d been there, honestly, I probably would’ve been standing near Peter, nodding, agreeing with him, saying “Yes, yes, exactly.”

We come to this rebuke of Peter while Jesus is on the run (notice a theme). They’re on the road, getting away from the crowds. Jesus has fed 4,000 on the sea of Galilee. The Pharisees come after him. He escapes. He performs a healing of a blind man in the chapter before this reading, and tells the man “don’t even go into the village” because he’s afraid of the news getting out. When Jesus asked last week, “who do people say I am?” there are nerves behind that question. Peter last week got the answer right, for once. “You’re the Messiah.” And Jesus orders him to be silent.

Jesus is nervous. Jesus explains to the disciples what is coming, and he paints a pretty ugly picture. Jesus explains that he expects to be hauled before the courts, to suffer, to die.

Peter doesn’t want that for Jesus. Can we blame him? He doesn’t want it for the movement he’s joined. Peter has just identified his leader as the savior, the messiah, the anointed one. Peter wants success. Peter wants it to look good. We don’t hear Peter’s words to Jesus, but I imagine they are something like: “Wait a minute Jesus, that suffering and dying stuff, I’m not sure I signed up for that. That’s not going to sell well.” True religion doesn’t sell well. If a faith doesn’t require some skin of your back, it isn’t Christianity.

These are heavy words, “take up your cross,” and I’m mindful that we’ve had an awful week. We still haven’t seen the full scale of the disaster in Houston. Even as the flood waters were rising, a group of Evangelical pastors were spitting homophobic and transphobic nonsense and saying they represented the one true faith. (All their sound and fury signifies nothing). Parishioners of mine in Washington DC got in touch this week. They’re nervous. These are folks who were able to secure good jobs, and come out of hiding because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA, were terrified this week that they were going to lose their immigration status, be shortlisted for deportation to countries they haven’t seen since they were a few months old. We’re also still dealing with the trauma of the images that came out of Charlottesville, waking some of us up to the hatred that is alive and deep in this country. I know I’m not alone in thinking, “Oh God, what’s next?” How do you even respond when the new cycle just feels like body blow after body blow for people you love?

I’m going to ask you to read a book.

This Fall we’re going to try an experiment. We’re calling it “One Book, One Parish.” The assignment is The Rev. Dr. William Barber’s “The Third Reconstruction.” Barber is a black Baptist pastor, and the chair of the North Carolina NAACP. He was one of the architects of a movement called “Moral Mondays” challenging the North Carolina legislature. And he take the long view of history. He argues that we are at a turning point in this country. The First Reconstruction was after the Civil War. America was re-made when slavery was abolished. The Second Reconstruction was the Civil Rights era. Today America is trying to be remade again. We have reached the Third Reconstruction.

I want us to read this book together, because I think it can help break the paralysis and the fear. Lately it feels like our whole country is playing defense. We’re standing up for some vision of history. We’re standing up to defend our neighbors from bias. As long as we are playing defense, I think we’re all losing. Rage won’t win the day. Rage isn’t enough. We have to get out of defense mode. We have to start moving forward toward a vision.

What is the America we want to see reconstructed? What is the city, the country, the world we want to live in? What does that look like? How can we get in the business of hope?

In “The Third Reconstruction,” Barber tells a story about his grandmother. After cooking for her whole extended family on Sunday, but before the food was served, she and her nieces would take a little bit of food along with a little money and anointing oil. She’d say to young William in the kitchen “We’ll be back shortly. We’ve got to go and hope somebody.” Here, in Barber’s words, was his response to his grandmother:

As a young black boy learning proper English in school, I thought my uneducated grandmamma was misspeaking—that she mistook the word “hope” for “help.” I even may have tried to correct her error in word choice a time or two. But looking back, I see that Grandmamma articulated more theology in that single phrase than some preachers manage to get into an entire sermon.

I don’t know a better description of “true religion.” “We’ve got to go and hope somebody.” True religion is Houstonians volunteering boats and going to rescue one another. True religion is the Baptist and Muslim youth groups my friends in Texas saw working side by side yesterday to muck out houses as the waters receded. True religion can be radical. I heard some true religion from a Catholic priest on Friday, here in St. Louis at a rally to protect DACA, who spoke out and said our Christian vision of the world imagines a place for refugees and immigrants. We welcome the stranger in the Christian worldview. Where have you seen true religion lately?

Friends I have to brag a bit about this church. Amidst all the bad news we’re hearing, this church is on the front page of the paper. This church is proclaiming good news. There’s a story about our laundry love ministry. Every third Tuesday we’re getting to know our neighbors and spreading some Laundry Love. You’re invited. September 19. Come volunteer at 6pm. Go hope somebody.

I could go on and on about the work of hope I am seeing in this church. Reconstructing a house, meeting neighbors for a beer and discussion, doing the hard work of praying for one another. I am grateful, really grateful to be a member of this congregation. You help me see hope: Your hard work, your generosity, the love you show, it increases in me true religion every day.

God has heard the cry of the people. God is coming. Go hope somebody.

Surely God is in this Place: Jacob’s Ladder and Unlikely Spiritual Geography

Jacob’s story today is a claim of unlikely sacred geography. Jacob finds himself on the run. He’s tricked Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, his birthright. Essau, as we heard last week, isn’t someone to be messed with. So Jacob, the trickster is on the run. Away from home, away from the lands of his grandfather Abraham, he has a dream and declares. “Surely God is in this place.” The claim is surprising. God is in the “place,” the “holy place,” of people of Haran. What, we might ask, is God doing THERE?

Jacob’s dream becomes one of the most lasting and captivating images of the connection between heaven and earth. Jacob’s ladder has been painted, carved into stone, and set in stained glass. We sing old of the ladder in old spirituals, and have you ever been in a guitar store and not heard someone learning Led Zeppelin’s stairway to heaven? Jacob’s Ladder is even a popular wooden toy. How many Bible passages have their own toy?

We are fascinated by this image of Jacob’s dream, Jacob’s ladder, this sense of God’s connection to earth, that in some places, the infinite and the finite touch. “Thin places” the Irish call them. Some of us have experienced the thinness. Do you have a sacred spot? A place you return to? I have a few. There’s a certain sage field at a camp I worked at in my early twenties in Colorado. I made it through a lot of angst spending quiet time in that field. There are places in our lives, old-worn paths that lead us to God.

But don’t miss what Jacob says when he wakes up. Surely God is in this place and I, I did not realize it. Our English translation misses a point of emphasis in the original. For you language nerds out there, we have an unnecessary pronoun: “I, I did not realize” Jacob says. The grammar of the Hebrew points to his realization that he, he has missed something. He has missed the presence of God. The responsibility for not noticing God in this territory belongs to Jacob.

Which leads me to ask: “How often do I, I not realize?” How often do we, we miss God? One of the biggest blunders in the spiritual life, and one I commit with great regularity, is assuming I know where to find God. God however, keeps ignoring my maps, showing up where I least expect. Jacob’s ladder touches down in unfamiliar territory.

Many of you know that I spent a year after college living in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. As a freshly minted Bachelor of Liberal Arts, I was convinced that I could make a difference. I came to Honduras fully expecting to find God, and I did, eventually, but not where I was looking.

You see, I believed fully that I would find God in my work. I was convinced that I had a great deal to teach, a great deal to offer. I was giving a year, I thought, maybe even more, to serve God in “the least of these.” I was sure to find God.

I arrived to El Hogar de Amor y Esperanza, the Orphanage that would be my home to discover that the job I had come to fill did not exist. I thought I would be teaching English and helping to orient short term volunteer groups who came to visit from the states. I arrived to discover El Hogar had an excellent English teacher, and no volunteer groups were scheduled to arrive in the next six months.

To complicate matters, my Spanish was not nearly fluent enough to manage over 100 boys between ages six and 15. I had been reading Thomas Merton, the famous 20th century monk and mystic who described with such poetry his encounter with God’s presence. I had not found God in my work. I spent most of the first six months in Honduras feeling frustrated, bored: useless.

I said as much in an email home to a priest in San Diego, the rector who had sponsored me for the volunteer program. I told him that I had applied for some jobs that would take me home early. His response came like as a wake up call. He said, in three sentences: “Thomas Merton had a lot to say about usefulness. None of it was positive. Stay in Honduras.” I did.

And somehow I let go of my crippling need to find God in “meaningful work” at El Hogar. I discovered that, for the sake of trying to find God in serving others, I had missed God in the laughter of the kids around me, in games of soccer, in shared meals, in simple conversations, and hugs. Surely God was in that place and I, I did not realize it. Until I let go of my expectations, my assumptions about where God was to be found.

Sometimes we don’t make the best judges of God’s presence. I think there is wisdom in Jesus’ parable about the weeds and the wheat today. I think he may be trying to tell his disciples not to go weeding before they learn the distinction between the wheat and the weeds. I could have easily uprooted myself too early from Honduras, and if I’d done so God’s presence to me in that place would never have blossomed.

Sometimes we can be so sure where we are to find God, so expectant about how God is supposed to act, that we miss where God is present. Wearing blinders that we’ve constructed, we pass through life looking for the God we can’t see, until we trip over the rungs of a ladder connecting heaven and earth.

I have a secret to share with you. Don’t tell anyone I said this, but I don’t think God is just an Episcopalian. Years ago, because of some crazy friends at seminary I had a profound sense of encounter with God while whirling with dervishes in a Sufi muslim mosque. Over the last months and years, I’ve prayed with Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Presbyterians as we work for justice in our region. I think God has been getting around. I think this story of Jacob encountering God in the pagan temple of a strange people has something to say to those of us who live in a religiously plural world.

If you’ve tried meditation with the Buddhists, read some of Rumi’s poetry, been to a yoga class, or experienced a seder dinner with Jewish friends, you may also have a sense of this. Episcopalians, even Christians may not have a monopoly on the divine. God can be found in the most surprising places, the upstairs room of a bar, or even in a laundromat.

As Jacob, that trickster, discovered, sometimes the best adventures occur when we venture into unmarked terrain. When we find ourselves out of our comfort zones, when we try the unexpected. Sometimes what makes a “thin place” thin is the loss of our sense of security and surety. If you find yourself somewhere unexpected, keep your eyes out. Pay attention to your dreams. Surely God is in this place.

PFLAG PANEL (PART 2): What I wish I had said to Fr. Brennan

Last night I was invited by PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and Growing American Youth (a local LGBTQ+ youth safe space for the greater St. Louis area) to speak on a panel of religious leaders about our faith tradition’s stance on LGBTQ+ people. In my first post, I confessed my naivety coming to the event hoping to have a thoughtful interchange about LGBTQ+ people and faith among inclusive religious leaders. One leader, a Catholic priest named Fr. Larry Brennan, made that impossible, and reminded me that the majority position in Christianity is still misogynistic, homophobic and trans-phobic. If my first post was “confession,” this second post might be called: “What I wish I’d said to Fr. Brennan.”

To be clear, I spoke a great deal last night, probably too much. I countered Fr. Brennan’s presentation of Paul’s letter to the Romans. I clarified that the majority of US Catholics affirm same-sex marriage. Fr. Brennan said he wished the current pope “wouldn’t talk to reporters,” when asked what he thought of Francis’ words: “who am I to judge?” I said I really valued much of what Pope Francis has to say. What follows are responses I wish I had made to two of his substantial points. Last night was emotional, and I found myself trying to referee this priest. I wish I had slowed down and responded to two points in his argument:

First, Fr. Brennan quoted a letter from Pope Paul the VI, which he said characterized all sexual behavior outside procreative sex within heterosexual marriage as “dishonest.” He made his argument from the Latin word “inhonestum,” (significant because the official English translation does not use “dishonest”).

Those who hear me preach regularly know that I quibble about words and translation. For preachers words are currency. Words matter. This word, “dishonest” was chosen carefully by Fr. Brennan. He called same-gender love “dishonest” because in his mind, it does not fulfill the only true and full intent of sexuality, the procreation of children within a marriage. I, obviously, disagree with his theological position.

“Dishonesty” was the wrong word to choose in that room. In response to his remarks Fr. Brennan heard story after painful story from youth and adults about how much honesty can cost a queer person. Many of them were kicked out of their homes, scolded by their priests, removed from their youth groups. Several had friends who had completed suicide. Honest stories were shared with a priest who called same-sex love “dishonest.”

Engraved over the entrance to the library at my seminary are the words of the Rev. William Sparrow: “Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will.” Last night I heard people share painful truth, and I saw a priest respond with callousness. He characterized their stories as “attacks.”

I wish I had said to Father Brennan:

“I think you have a strange definition of dishonesty. You have heard so many deeply honest stories tonight. If you believe God loves human beings, if you believe that God made these particular human beings in God’s own image, then let them be honest. Let them tell you how their love has been a blessing. Let them tell you how their sexuality has been a blessing. Let them share their truth about their gender identity with you. Encouraging people to deny their truth, THAT is dishonesty.”

The Second point Fr. Brennan made involved a program he is personally involved with called “Courage” for folks who want to lead lives of chastity in response to same-sex attraction. He said that “Courage” models itself on the “twelve steps,” The twelve steps he mentioned are originally of Alcoholics Anonymous, and they are closely related to The Episcopal Church. An Episcopal priest, The Rev. Sam Shoemaker, helped to mentor the founders of A.A. as they worked to develop a program for recovery. The twelve steps assume that a behavior is a problem. Alcoholism is a disease. The first step of AA is: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” I wish I had taken him to task on what I believe is an abuse of a life-saving program.

I wish I had said to Fr. Brennan:

“Same-sex attraction and transgender identity are not disorders or diseases. While Courage may not attempt to “pray the gay [orientation] away,” I firmly disagree with a program which treats same-sex love like a disease. I could never call Courage a “ministry.” I hope your program gets sued by AA for abusing their method. For many years the church took the position, “hate the sin, love the sinner.” That position is flawed. Love is not a sin. Gender is not a sin. Sexuality is not inherently sinful. God created us to love one another, and cis-gendered heterosexual married partners avoiding contraception do NOT have a monopoly on love. God’s love is surprisingly big, inclusive, and God challenges us to live truthfully. Your program, in my view, encourages dishonesty.”

I hope I have another chance to meet Fr. Brennan, one where I am more prepared to share across disagreement. I hope he and I both “read the room” a little better before we respond. My colleague, Rabbi Susan Talve demonstrated what pastoral ministry looks like last night, as she closed the panel by responding to pain with compassion. She looked a woman who had spoken through tears in the face and said, “I hear you. I am sorry. You are strong.” Fr. Brennan and I both could learn from the good Rabbi. I hope to meet this priest again, because I believe God’s surprising love includes Fr. Brennan.