Monday, December 05, 2022

Equal Protection Is Only Equal Protection If It Protects Everyone Equally

Another Monday, yet another opportunity to listen to Nina Totenberg dissect yet another Supreme Court case deciding whether the equal protection guaranteed by the Constitution to all Americans equally protects LGBTQ Americans.

To paraphrase Bishop Barbara — who famously said “there’s no such thing as half-assed baptized” — there is no such thing as half-assed equal protection. But there is a definitive difference between the First Amendment protection of the exercise of religion and the ongoing effort to enable the imposition of religion.

And yes, I am grateful for the Respect for Marriage Act wherein DOMA is finally actually repealed and federal protections for marriage rights are provided EVEN if SCOTUS goes rogue and Kentucky or Ohio or Florida or pick-your state acts up.

It's both a backstop to protect extant rights and a beachhead to regroup and get the Equality Act through when we retake the House and get a filibuster proof Senate.

Nevertheless, it is exhausting to continue to have your life, your relationship, your family and your equal protection a subject of ongoing debate.

So it might be a good week to offer the LGBTQ folk in your lives a little extra TLC. And if you’re part of the rainbow tribe to offer yourself a little self-care. Because clearly la lucha continua. And there are miles to go before we rest.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Advent One 2022 – Hope Is Never Silent

May the words of my mouth and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our strength, our courage, and our freedom.

"The first candle of Advent is the candle of Hope." And here we are again -- marking yet another trip around the sun and the beginning of another new church year ... marking it as generations upon generations have done before us ... with the lighting of the first candle on the Advent wreath, the praying of the familiar prayers and the singing of the familiar hymns as we settle into the familiar time of preparation for the coming of our Lord.

And yet, perhaps what binds us most to those generations on whose shoulders we stand on this First Sunday of Advent 2022 is not the constancy of rituals and routines but the inevitability of change ... and the necessity of those rituals and routines changing and adapting as we move forward into the future evolving -- sometimes it feels before our very eyes -- and sometimes it feels like one step forward, two steps back.

It is into that cycle of both hope and change -- and yes, I choose those words advisedly and not lightly -- that we step as we cross the threshold into this new church year.

 And this year here at All Saint Church, one of the things that changes is the lens through which we will read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the sacred texts appointed for our weekly worship.

 The churchy word for the cycle of those readings is "Lectionary" -- and this year ... as you may have read in our newsletter ... we are using "A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church" created by our scholar-in-community Dr. Wil Gaffney.

Earlier this week in her introduction the lectionary, Dr. Gayle Fisher-Stewart reminded us that this women’s lectionary for the whole church is for the whole church not just women … and not just Episcopalians… but for the whole church.

It is a chance for the church to read its sacred texts not for confirmation of what it thinks it already knows -- but to let the sacred text speak to it anew – to tell the whole story.

It is a chance to listen to how the story of God is told when the stories of women are moved from the margins and held in the center. It is a chance to tread into unsettled waters – unsettled waters that risk changes that are revolutionary, revelatory, and threatening.

And it is an opportunity recognize that in so doing we follow in the footsteps of the radical rabbi from Nazareth who loved us enough to become one of us in order to show us how to love one another by doing exactly what Dr. Gaffney is doing with this lectionary for the whole church … by centering voices from the margins and threatening the powerful in the center.

You remember the story. The one where Jesus had the soft launch of his ministry in his hometown of Nazareth and they invited him to read in synagogue that Sabbath -- so he unrolled the scroll and read from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
 because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
She has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 And then he got to his big finish: 

“Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing!”

… and they were all thumbs up and attaboy and
“Hey, isn’t this the son of Joseph … I know his folks!” …

... until he decentered them from the text
by centering a woman and a foreigner --
the widow of Zarephath and some guy named Naaman the Syrian.

And – as the story goes – “On hearing this, all the people in the synagogue were enraged. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him over the cliff.

Beloveds, this is what happens when we follow the Jesus who treads into unsettled waters.

It doesn’t always lead to “nice sermon” handshakes at the door and likes on Facebook.

It leads to unsettled waters that risk changes that are revolutionary, revelatory, and threatening. And the threat is real.

In the words of biblical scholar Dr. Verna Dozier “Jesus announced that the kingdom of God had come with him and … offered another possibility to humankind. But since it is another possibility that threatens the existing arrangements the existing arrangements will bend every effort to destroy it: to water it down with religion or threaten it with disloyalty.”

Will bend every effort to destroy it.

When you “threaten the existing arrangements” the existing arrangements can and will do whatever it takes to destroy that threat.

The existing arrangement of White Supremacist Patriarchy will do whatever it takes to destroy the threat of sharing power with Black, Brown, Queer and Female people – including dismantling democracy and replacing it with oligarchy if necessary.

The existing arrangement of cisgender heteronormativity will do whatever it takes to destroy the challenge of transgender and non-binary people seeking to speak their own truth and live their own experience of gender identity – a challenge we see in sharp relief in the onslaught of anti-trans and “don’t say gay” legislation across our nation.

The existing arrangements within the church are designed to keep people conveniently & perpetually in need of a forgiveness that only the church can provide will do whatever it can to hold onto its power by marginalizing and dismissing theologies and narratives that challenge it.

And the existing arrangement of Church-aligned-with-Empire will literally do whatever it takes to destroy any threat to its power – which is what accounts for the rising tide of Christian Nationalism in our nation and in our world.

 Nevertheless, we persist.

And on this First Sunday of Advent
we celebrate not only that there is both hope and change –
we celebrate that there is hope IN change.

And we claim the vision represented in the graphic on our bulletin cover this morning …

May we grow back not to what was but to what we might become

because we follow a radical rabbi from Nazareth
who is about both hope AND change.


Hear again these words from poet Alice Walker:

 The world has changed:

Wake up! Give yourself the gift of a new day.
The world has changed:
This does not mean you were never hurt.
The world has changed: Rise!
Yes & shine!
Resist the siren call of disbelief.
The world has changed:
Don’t let yourself remain asleep to it.

Our challenge this Advent season is to
resist the siren call of disbelief that our hope can change anything … because it not only can – it does

 It is to claim the hope we find in the telling and re-telling of the stories of our spiritual ancestors -- even as we frame and re-frame their telling by centering historically marginalized voices.

It is to continue to pray for the grace to cast away the works of enslavement and be clothed in the hope of liberation.

And it is to embrace the promise in today’s reading from Romans:

Hope that is seen is not hope.
For who hopes for what is seen?
But if we hope for what we do not see,
we wait for it with patience. 

And while we wait – with patience – we remember that another Radical Rabbi – Rabbi Abraham Heschel – famously said ““Patience, a quality of holiness may be sloth in the soul when associated with the lack of righteous indignation.”

We can be patient – and indignant.
We can be patient – and persistent.
We can embody both change – and hope
Because hope will never be silent.

Hope will never be silent.

Today we mark the forty-fourth anniversary of the assassination of Harvey Milk – member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and a national gay rights leader. On November 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were gunned down in City Hall by Dan White, a disgruntled former supervisor. Mourning and riots throughout San Francisco followed news of the assassinations and White’s subsequent conviction for manslaughter rather than murder.

Nevertheless, the message Harvey Milk proclaimed forty-four years ago still preaches to us today:

“You have to give them hope.
Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow,
hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great.
If there is a message I have to give, it is this:
that you have to give people hope ...”

And so on this First Sunday of Advent in the Year of Our Lord 2022
for all the daunting challenges there are still to face
for all the work there is yet to do
for all the changes that stand between us
and the Beloved Community God would have us be,
let us remember today that
we are where we are today
because of those who believed in the hope in their hearts
enough to risk the threats from “the existing arrangements”
in order to live out that hope in the world. 

Hear again the words of Alice Walker: 

The world has changed:
It did not change without your numbers
your fierce love of self & cosmos
it did not change without your strength.
The world has changed:
Wake up! Give yourself the gift of a new day.

And then let us pray: 

Come, O Christ and dwell among us! Hear our cries, come set us free.
Give us hope and faith and gladness. Show us what there yet can be.

Set us free to be the change you call us to be.
Set us free to live your love.
Set us free to be your justice.
Set us free to journey into the adventure of God’s future this Advent and always.

Set us free to proclaim the Hope that will never be silent.
Amen.

Friday, October 28, 2022

An Online Women's Lectionary Bible Study: Year A

Join us beginning Monday, Nov. 21 as All Saints Church in Pasadena hosts a weekly online lectionary study for preachers and anyone using Year A of the Women's Lectionary by Dr. Wil Gafney. Sessions will be Mondays at 9 am Pacific, 10 Mountain, 11 Central and Noon Eastern.

Each session will begin with a reflection on the readings and Dr. Gafney's notes from a noted woman of color who is a theologian, priest, deacon, bishop, biblical scholar, psychologist, etc. in order to ground the conversation in the womanist perspective from which the lectionary was written. We will then break into small discussion groups for study and conversation and come back together in a large group at the end of the hour.
We have a spectacular lineup to kick us off for Advent -- Gayle Fisher-Stewart, Melanie Mullen, Wil Gafney, and Leah Gunning Francis. A free-will offering will be taken up each week for the speaker to support her/them and their ministry. The opening and closing portions will be recorded and available for later listening/viewing.
Register in advance here and you will be sent the link for the meeting (the link will be good for the whole year).
Need more info? Email info@allsaints-pas.org

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Episcopal Church Supports Respect for Marriage Act


“Across religious traditions, we honor the common tenet that every person has inherent dignity and worth. And wherever we call home, we share the desire to care for our families with love and commitment. We urge the Senate to pass the Respect for Marriage Act, taking meaningful action to protect same-sex and interracial marriage.”

These words are from the September 20, 2022 the Episcopal News Service article entitled "Episcopalians encouraged to support federal law supporting same-sex marriage." You can read it here. Twenty years ago a collaborative initiative called "Claiming the Blessing" was launched with the goal of working with allies and organizations within the Episcopal Church to secure approval of liturgical rites of blessing for same-sex unions. This was before the election of Gene Robinson as the Bishop of New Hampshire and before the Windsor Report or the various efforts to vote the Episcopal Church off the Anglican Island during the Great Inclusion Wars -- when the lives, vocations and relationships of LGBTQ Anglicans were egregiously exploited as pawns in a game of global Anglican politics.
It was, of course, not "all about us." It was about the wider and still looming question of who has the power to decide who is in and who is out of God's Beloved Community; of how we will interpret the scripture we receive as an inheritance from our spiritual ancestors; of whether patriarchy is God's design for how we live and move and have our being in this realm -- of whether God is (as some continue to insist) "a boys' name" and if respecting the dignity of every human being actually means EVERY human being.
The journey continues -- as does the struggle -- but twenty years ago we couldn't have imagined an article like this offered by the Episcopal News Service covering the unequivocal support of the Episcopal Church for respect for ALL marriages. In fact, twenty years ago, we launched our Claiming the Blessing initiative with this disclaimer from then-Integrity President Michael Hopkins:
We believe in our heart of hearts that our relationships are equal to heterosexual relationships … and so, in our heart of hearts, we believe the rite used to publicly celebrate them should be equal. But that is not what we are asking for … We are compromising, moderating our position, for the sake of the Church. Liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists, must learn to live together in this Church or there will be no Church in which for us to live. But learning to live together must mean “mutual deference” not moratoriums."
Our position was a bridge too far for some and not far enough for others -- and yet it was a bridge we continued to build. And while the work of full inclusion and the eradication of homophobia & transphobia in all its forms and manifestations is far from done, we find ourselves in this moment, at this time, in this place where the Episcopal Church officially stands up and speaks out for respect for marriage ... with no asterisk relegating some marriages -- our marriages --to second class status.
Margaret Mead famously said "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has." With all the challenges we face in this moment in this church, in this nation and in this world I think it's worth pausing for just a minute to recognize that change can happen. That persistence does pay off. And that incremental victories toward the audacious goal of making this a world where we respect the dignity of every human being are worth celebrating.
And then we get back to work

Monday, September 19, 2022

Our Dreams Are on the Other Side of Fear

So on Sunday, September 18, 2022 this happened: I preached on Homecoming Sunday at All Saints Church -- which was such a high honor it wasn't even on my bucket list! But the baton got passed to me on Thursday morning when the rector tested positive for COVID and here's what came of it ... with thanks to inspiration from Miguel Escobar, Verna Dozier, Viola Davis, Johnny Cash, Tobias Haller and -- of course -- Jesus! 

Our Dreams Are On the Other Side of Fear

It is always an honor to bring a word as a preacher from this pulpit – 
to stand where Desmond Tutu, Maya Angelou, George Regas, Barbara Harris, Michael Curry, Ed Bacon, and countless others have stood down through the years is a privilege I always carry with me when I step into this holy space.

And I carry all those feels with me this morning – along with a little bit of what I imagine it might feel like to get the call to come out of the bullpen to pitch for Kershaw on Opening Day – on this All Saints Homecoming Sunday 2022 as I stand here in place of our rector, Mike Kinman, who is back from sabbatical but home recovering from a bout with Covid. Mike, we send our love and your prayers to you for a rapid recovery and a quick return to us.

If you think you can’t-go-home-again
            Because the might-haves and
            the should-haves and the
            didn’t-quites
            have taken hold,
Then think again.

And here we are ... home again.

This is the twenty-first year I've heard those words read from that lectern by the inimitable Anne Peterson on an All Saints Homecoming Sunday – and every single time I feel a little catch in my throat and a little sweat in my eyeballs at the unconditional love and welcome they embody.
At the radical inclusion they preach.
At the core Gospel they proclaim.

And if I've ever been tempted in the twenty years I’ve been on staff  here at All Saints to take them for granted then the changes, chances and challenges of the recent past have utterly knocked that out of my system.

We have come through so much together since the last time we gathered for an everybody back in church, tent on the lawn, party after the service, everything but the kitchen sink All Saints Homecoming Sunday back in 2019. 

We have weathered a pandemic
which continues to infect and affect our daily lives,
we have survived both a general election and an armed insurrection,
we have provided a safe haven
for siblings experiencing homelessness on our campus
and we have mourned the loss of family, community,
and congregation members who we love but see no more.  

We have shared the collective grief and outrage
at the senseless death of George Floyd
and the systemic racism that continues to infect our nation,
marched together in protest at the stripping
of constitutional rights to bodily autonomy
for people who can become pregnant 
and wondered together if our country can survive
the ongoing assault on this fragile experiment
we call constitutional democracy –
all under the shadow of the existential climate crisis,
ongoing scourge of gun violence
and the threat of global war in general and Ukraine in specific.

Nevertheless, we persist.

As we gather on this Homecoming 2022 we celebrate the resilience of a community of faith living out its commitment to courageous justice and radical inclusion in our generation as those who came before us did in theirs.

For we inherit a legacy of what it is to be home – not only for each other but for all those who come seeking the love, justice and compassion so tragically lacking in so much of our beautiful and broken world. 

And we also inherit a legacy of changing and being changed by those who make All Saints their home as they join in that work and witness we share as we continue to move forward into God's future.

In our home, my wife Lori and I have dedicated a wall to family photos. Maybe you have one of those, too. Hanging in the center of ours is piece of calligraphy that reads:

            Our family is a circle of strength and love.
            With every birth and every union, the circle grows.
            Every joy shared adds more love.
            Every crisis faced together makes the circle stronger.

It is a reminder that nothing is static; that families change and grow as the circle grows; and that both shared joys and shared challenges are part of what it means to build a home together – whether that home is a family home or a church home.

So welcome home!

Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on this 18th day of September in the year of our Lord 2022 ... whether you're here at 132 Euclid  in your favorite pew or choir seat or chancel chair; out on the quad lawn in our outdoor seating area or streaming from afar due to the marvels of modern technology; whether it is your first or twenty-first or forty-first Homecoming Sunday – or if you just wandered in the door or clicked on a streaming link and are wondering what this is all about – Welcome Home to All Saints Church as we celebrate one of the great parish feast days of our big fat parish family.

And as the lectionary roulette wheel would have it, our opening prayer gave us a head start on setting the table for that feast: 

Grant us, Loving God, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure …

Am I the only one who heard Sally read the words “not be anxious” and thought “Are you kidding? Have you seen the news lately?”

No. Not kidding.

Yes – there’s a lot to be anxious about. 
I’ve got a whole list of the things and I’ll bet you do, too.

But the good news is the very fact that there’s a prayer in the prayer book that explicitly calls us out of that anxiety means we’re not the first generation to work our way through that anxiety.

The good news is that we have a whole balcony full of cheerleaders in the host of heaven supporting us as we grapple with the challenges of our time as they did with the challenges of theirs.

The good news is that when the ongoing deluge of what my father used to call “the news of fresh disasters” threatens to discourage, exhaust, and immobilize us we’ve got an app for that.

And that app is not pie in the sky when you die theology …
It is God is with us here on the ground theology
which is as ancient as these words we heard this morning from the Psalmist:  

Who is like our God? Enthroned so high, you need to stoop to see the sky and the earth! You raise the poor from the dust and lift the needy from the dust to give them a place at the table with rulers, with the leaders of your people.

And it is present in the Gospel appointed for today … which is hard to understand and harder to preach – or at least it was for me until I encountered my friend and brilliant colleague Miquel Escobar’s new book: The Unjust Steward: Wealth, Poverty and the Church Today.”   

Miguel reminds us that throughout the Gospels, stewards are the foils to Jesus’ scandalous generosity – and that they are closely linked with domination, exploitation, and injustice: this morning’s Gospel being a key case in point.

For context, what we hear is a story that takes place on a vast agricultural estate, one in which a landowner and his property manager -- the steward – had pressed workers into forms of debt bondage.

Biblical scholars have noted that the steward here was likely a “first servant” who had been freed from enslavement for the purpose of serving as manager and overseer of the others in bondage to the landowner.

When the landowner fires the steward, he panics and comes up with a curious plan for survival. After years of extracting wealth from those he had overseen, the steward now begins to send his master’s wealth flowing in reverse by remitting the debts of those indebted to the master.  

In the end, the steward gains new life by releasing his master’s ill-begotten wealth for the remittance of debts; and he gains refuge by serving those he’d formerly exploited. In other words, he chooses which master to serve – and Jesus concludes the parable by appearing to praise the actions of the steward who alleviated debts in an act of economic jubilee – contrary to the ways of the world but in alignment with the heavenly values of love, justice, and compassion.

Also in alignment with these words from a Johnny Cash tune:

If you're holding heaven, then spread it around
There's hungry hands reaching up here from the ground
Move over and share the high ground where you stood
You’re so heavenly minded, you're no earthly good

To be saved from being so heavenly minded you’re no earthly good liberates us to love things heavenly in a way that empowers us to engage in earthly things – 
to be the change we want to see in the world –
to live out God’s heavenly dream of love, justice, and compassion in the spite of the epidemic of hate, judgement, and condemnation spreading like another kind of viral variant throughout our human family.

Just this week we watched in disbelief as members of our human family were used as pawns in a game of partisan politics for exercising their legal right to seek asylum in our nation.

It’s literally enough to give Baby Jesus colic …
and yet we have the example of the good people of St. Martha’s Episcopal Church on Martha’s Vineyard who opened their arms, hearts, and parish hall – holding heaven and spreading it around. 

Their Gospel witness is but one example of how we hold onto things heavenly not as an escape from all that’s broken in our world but as a lifeline to the grace and power we need to repair that what is broken – to move over and share the high ground with those who hunger for hope and home – 
to continually widen the circle of strength and love –
to make this world once again into the dream God dreamed for all
rather than the nightmare it has become for so many.
To make the garden of Eden grow green again.

I watched an interview with Viola Davis this weekend about her new film “The Woman King” – which I may or may not have seen while scrolling through Instagram procrastinating writing this sermon -- but I digress. 

In the interview, Ms. Davis described both the process of making the film and its core message with these words: “All your dreams are on the other side of fear.”

All your dreams are on the other side of fear.

And immediately I thought of these words from biblical scholar Verna Dozier: words I’ve quoted many times over the last 20 years from this pulpit:

“Doubt is not the opposite of faith.
Fear is.
Fear will not risk that even if I am wrong,
I will trust that if I move today
by the light that is given to me,
knowing it is only finite and partial,
I will know more and different things tomorrow
than I know today,
and I can be open to the new possibility
I cannot even imagine today.”

All Saints Church, all OUR dreams are on the other side of fear.
Possibilities we can’t even imagine are on the other side of fear.
All our dreams of all that we’re called to be as a community of faith, 
as a parish family, as an outward and visible sign of the Body of Christ in the world …
the work ahead of us building on the legacy behind us …
the privilege of continuing to imagine All Saints into being …
the gift of growing back not to what was,
but instead toward what we can become.

On this Homecoming Sunday 2022 let us claim that vision and that promise together. 
Let us resolve to be heavenly minded in order to do earthly good. 

Let us dare to dream together of the day when all will be restored; a day when that kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven we pray for every time we gather becomes not just a prayer we pray but a reality we live – a day captured for me in these words by poet Brother Tobias Haller:

My beloved in Christ,
I give you this word:
now is the time for the children to grow up,
now is the time for the heirs to inherit.
Nothing will be lost.
All will be restored.
And now is the time.
The whole world is waiting,
the stars hold their breath,
the wild beasts and cattle
regard us with growing impatience,
the birds hover over us, the fish all tread water,
the trees shrug in wonder, or stand limbs akimbo,
and deep in our hearts
God’s Spirit is groaning:

“Be reborn, beloved, become what you are
and the world will be free.”
The Spirit is crying:
“Look up to the light, your hearts will be whole
and the wound will be healed.”
The Spirit is singing:
“My children, my children are home!”

 

 

Sunday, August 28, 2022

True Religion vs Toxic Religiosity

 I've always thought there should be extra credit for anyone who remembers a sermon after coffee hour. And that has never been more true than in this age of accelerated data dumps and social media tsunamis.  The sheer volume of stuff shouting for our attention seems to exponentially increase from Sunday to Sunday … and shows no sign of slowing down. We are arguably on information overload.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away a seminary professor compared preaching a sermon to standing in the pulpit and flinging a bucket of water into a room full of Coke bottles. "If you're lucky," he said, "some of the water will end up in some of the bottles."

I suspect his point was to lower both our anxiety and our expectations as fledgling preachers -- but I remember it because even at the time it felt to me like the bar should be higher. And I still do.

Nevertheless, the metaphor stuck with me -- and this morning I'm getting extra credit for remembering a sermon past coffee hour … because I'm still carrying around some of the water flung from this pulpit last Sunday by Brother Chase. 

I'm still mulling the powerful image of the moment when Jesus stopped preaching the sermon and BECAME the sermon -- the moment when he dared to heal the woman who came to him on the Sabbath -- defying the purity codes, rubrics, customs, and protocols that defined the religious tradition he inherited ...  enraging the religious leaders of his day as he continued to make a name for himself as that Radical Rabbi from Nazareth.

And I'm still reflecting on this powerful question Chase asked from the pulpit:

“What will we be when life -- as life so often does --
dares us to be everything we say we believe?”

What will we be in response to a news cycle dominated by the rise of Christian Nationalism, by systematic faith-based scapegoating of transgender people in general and transgender youth in particular, by pearl clutching over student loan forgiveness and by the distortion of ancient biblical texts to justify eliminating the right to bodily autonomy for people who can become pregnant.

What will we be when judgment, condemnation, and exclusion are deployed as weapons of mass discrimination by those presuming to speak for Traditional Christian Values while utterly ignoring the justice, compassion, and inclusion preached by the Radical Rabbi they purport to follow.

“What will we be when life -- as life so often does --
dares us to be everything we say we believe?”

We’ll get to the “what will we be” part … but let’s back up for a minute to the “where do we start?” part.

And as Episcopalians – as people of Common Prayer (if not always common belief) we start with this prayer appointed for today:

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. 

Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion

These words we just prayed in the “Collect of the Day” – the prayer which began our worship this morning as it does every Sunday with words intended to summarize the themes of the lessons appointed for this particular day.

Let me just start by saying that “True Religion” – (the thing we just prayed for God to increase in us) is, I am convinced, a whole lot easier to pray for than it is either to recognize or to agree on. 

Here’s my own “religion confession:”

I spent a number years suffering from what I can only describe as a “religion allergy.” That is maybe a weird admission from a priest, but when I was a young adult I spent a lot of time explaining to people that I didn’t need religion in order to be spiritual.

I also spent a lot time avoiding attending the church I grew up in which was so full of rules and rituals, do’s and don’ts, judgment, criticism and cranky old people talking about the love of God while being truly dreadful to each other that there seemed to be no actual room for GOD – which I was naïve enough to think was supposed to be the POINT of this whole thing in the first place! 

It got to the point where religion became a roadblock in my spiritual journey – and so I took a detour. And because God works in mysterious ways, my “spiritual GPS” led me back to the Episcopal Church of my birth and to All Saints Church!

And eventually I looked up the word “religion” in the dictionary and here’s what I found: it turns out to have the same root as the word “ligament” – that which “binds together” – and one of its definitions is “that which binds together people in their quest for the divine.”

• Not “that which insists that our way is the only way.”

• Not “that which gives people license to villianize, exclude and even kill in God’s name.”

• Not “that which creates enough rules and restrictions that everybody you disagree with has to stay out.”

No – in the Gospel According to Merriam Webster, the definition of religion is: “That which binds together people in their quest for the divine.”  

And if that’s true religion then that’s something I’m willing to pray for. To work for.  To speak out for.

Because it turns out the allergy I had wasn’t to “religion” at all – but to what it had become in the hands of those who had taken what God intended as a means to draw all people TO God and turned it into a system to hold everyone they found unacceptable AWAY from God.

And it turns out the allergy I had was the same one Jesus had – and acted on – throughout the gospels whenever he was confronted by the rule makers, gate keepers and power brokers of his generation. 

People like those who complained that he was healing on the Sabbath – who gossiped about his eating with tax collectors, sinners, and outcasts – who complained that his disciples didn’t wash their hands the right way … and dozens of other examples all throughout the Bible.

“And what is the greatest commandment?” (in other words “what IS “true religion?) they will famously ask him later (trying to trap him) And Jesus will tell them: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind – this is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it –love your neighbor as yourself. On these two hang ALL the law and the prophets. 

There you have it: the essence of true religion – that which binds us together in our search for the divine – turns out to be love: love for God and for each other.

ANYTHING else that we manage to create – even our most beloved rituals, most comforting routines, most cleverly designed systems – can become religious roadblocks if they themselves become more important to us that this walk in love, this quest for the divine – this journey to God.

True religion becomes toxic religiosity when it makes what is supposed to bind us together in search of the divine more important than the divine for which we search.

Toxic religiosity creates a narrow worldview that programs you to believe science is an enemy of faith and sets you up to reject as “fake news” the very science that calls us to come together to save what we can of this plane we have exploited rather than tended.

Toxic religiosity insists on male language for God 
marginalizing women and non-binary people, perpetuating the patriarchy and fanning the fire of unexamined privilege. 

Toxic religiosity lays down a roadmap where it a very short journey from “the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it” to “my country, love it or leave it.”

And there is a direct connection between this theological worldview 
and the rise of nationalism, sexism, white supremacism and the rest of the litany of isms that plague our nation and our world: the rise of the forces we struggle against daily as we live out our baptismal promise to persevere in resisting evil.

And I’m convinced on this sultry summer Pasadena Sunday that toxic religiosity is high on the list of those things daring us to be everything we say we believe.

Daring us to live out in our time the same countercultural values of true religion the ancient biblical texts we inherit were calling our spiritual ancestors to live out in theirs.

And how is it those texts call us to live out those beliefs as Jesus followers in the world?

From the Letter to the Hebrews we heard this morning:

  • ·      Continue to love each other as siblings.
  • ·      Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers
  • ·      Keep in mind those who are in prison
  • ·      Be mindful of those who are being treated badly
  • ·      Let marriage be honored by everyone

From the Psalm appointed for today:

  • ·      Good people are honest in all their dealings.
  • ·      Quick to be generous, they give to the poor, doing justice always and forever
  • ·      They are generous and lend money without interest

And can we just pause for a minute and give a shout out to that Psalm? What are the odds this particular Psalm would be appointed for this particular Sunday in the week when forgiving debts has suddenly become a bad idea to some because it applies to folks staggering under the burden of student loans instead of corporations lobbying for tax credits?

Psalm 112, verse 5. You might want to write that down. It might come in handy.

And as long as we’re down the proof-text rabbit hole, here’s another one: Deuteronomy 15:1. At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. Seriously. That’s not from some liberal think tank. It’s from The Bible.

You think maybe with football season starting, we might start seeing Deuteronomy 15:1 signs in the end zones? 

Probably not.

Because as one of the meme-making pundits on Instagram put it:

“If there’s one thing student debt forgiveness has taught us
 about biblical literalists it is that they aren’t actually biblical literalists.”

This will not be breaking news to most of the All Saints Church faithful.

This is a community of faith that has literally spent decades challenging the kind of biblical literalism that takes passages out of context and twists them into weapons of mass discrimination – turning true religion values of justice, compassion, and inclusion into toxic religiosity values of judgement, condemnation, and exclusion.

It is part of the DNA of this community of faith we call All Saints Church and it is one of the building blocks we are called use as we to continue to build forward into God's future. 

“What will we be when life -- as life so often does --
dares us to be everything we say we believe?”

I pray that the answer is that we will be "ligaments of love" 
that bind up the wounded, encircle the lonely, welcome the stranger, bridge the divide, and preach the Good news of God's inclusive love radically available to absolutely everyone.

A tall order in the face of all that challenges us on sultry summer Sunday in Pasadena? Of course it is.

Political activist and philosopher Angela Davis famously said:

“You have to act as if it were possible radically transform the world.
And you have to do it all the time.”

Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.
And yet that is the work we have been given to do.

It is why we gather around this table week after week, year after year, to be fed by the holy food and drink of new and unending life — reminding us that it is in the broken that we are made whole that until all of us are gathered in none of us are truly home and that another world is not only possible ... she is on her way.

Amen.

All Saints Church, Pasadena | August 28, 2022 - Proper 17C | Susan Russell