Sunday, January 27, 2008

There is safety here

Epiphany 3A “There is Safety Here” The Rev. Linda Campbell

The name of Christian is not held in extremely high esteem. Polls show that negative perceptions towards the Christian faith outweigh the positive. Common negative perceptions are that present-day Christianity is judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned and too political. And a new image attached to the Christian faith has grown in prominence over the last decade. Overall, 91 percent of young non-Christians and 80 percent of young churchgoers say present-day Christianity is "anti-homosexual."

Young Christians largely criticize the church, saying it has made homosexuality a "bigger sin" than anything else and that the church has not helped them apply the biblical teaching on homosexuality to their friendships with gays and lesbians.*

I know I’ve told you this story before, but it left a searing impression with me and with the group of teens and adult leaders I took to the 2003 General Convention. This was the infamous Convention in which the Episcopal Church ratified the election of Gene Robinson to the Episcopate. Most of the teens who had come from all over the country to take part in the convention could honestly not see what the big fuss was about. So what if he’s gay, they asked, is he a good guy, a faithful Christian leader? Every day, we slung the tags around our necks that allowed us to get into the convention, boarded the buses from the campus where we were housed, and made the 30 minute trek to the Convention site. The bus let us off a couple of blocks from the entrance, and after one jaunt down those blocks and into the Convention Center, we learned to take off the identifying tags and put them into our pockets until we came to the entrance. Because in that two blocks, we walked a gauntlet of fellow “Christians”. People who claimed the name of Christ but who carried signs that said the most hateful things I have ever seen – blatant hatred.

While I wasn’t in the South during the Civil Rights era and the de-segregation of schools, we know that young people suffered many gauntlets of hatefulness – often perpetrated by those who claimed the name of Christ.

Young Americans today are more skeptical and resistant to Christianity than were people of the same age just a decade ago. They believe that "Christianity is changed from what it used to be" and "Christianity in today's society no longer looks like Jesus." According to this study, young born-again Christians were just as likely to say the same thing.*

Someone told me that she had come by this church many times before she ever ventured inside. She just stood outside for many Sundays, trying to "get the vibe" of the place. I want you to know that when someone new walks through these doors, they may have traversed a huge psychic distance to get here. Treat them with kindness and warmth and know that, despite their apprehensions, they have not just come here because they need friends – but because they need God –

and they believe that this may be a place to encounter and experience Divine healing.

Because somehow the name of Jesus continues to be held in very high esteem.

It also happens that the name brand of Episcopalian is still held in fairly high regard, although the number one question I am asked, as people find their way back to the church, is: "so what’s happening with the schism?" Disunity around the table is deeply off putting to those who simply hunger for the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.

The early church fathers had a lot to say about this wrangling between Christians, and the pride that was at the root of this divisiveness. In the 3rd century, Origen wrote “So liable are the best things in the world to be corrupted, and the gospel and its institutions, which are at perfect harmony with themselves and one another, to be made the engines of variance, discord, and contention. This is no reproach to our religion, but a very melancholy evidence of the corruption and depravity of human nature. How far will pride carry Christians in opposition to one another! Even so far as to set Christ and his own apostles at variance, and make them rivals and competitors.*

Earlier, in the 2nd century, Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Trallian community: "I therefore, yet not I, out the love of Jesus Christ, “entreat you that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment.” there are some vain talker and deceivers, not Christians, but Christ-betrayers, bearing about the name of Christ in deceit, and “corrupting the word” of the Gospel; ... For they speak of Christ, not that they may preach Christ, but that they may reject Christ; and they speak of the law, not that they may establish the law, but that they may proclaim things contrary to it.”*

Jesus said it a bit more simply – by their fruits you will know them.

What we experienced in Minneapolis was an extreme example of the more common and pernicious form of the same kind of pride of which Origen and Ignatius and Jesus spoke of - that of thinking that your way is God’s way, and that your thoughts are God’s thoughts.

Another churchman of the 1700’s in commenting on this morning's epistle - the 10th chapter to the Corinthians - wrote: “St. Paul extorts them to unity and brotherly love, and reproves them for their divisions….He writes to them in a very engaging way: "I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; if you have any regard to that dear and worthy name by which you are called, be unanimous. Speak all the same thing; avoid divisions or schisms" that is, all alienation of affection from each other. Be perfectly joined together in the same mind, as far as you can. In the great things of religion be of a mind: but, when there is not a unity of sentiment, let there be a union of affections.*

It is this that constitutes the greatness of the Anglican communion – at it’s best. In the great things of religion – a common mind, and where there is not a unity of sentiment – a unity of affections. That is why there has been such an emphasis in the Anglican Communion upon visitations and mingling of people from various parts of the globe. One of our newest Vestry members is a member of the Anglican Church of Uganda, and we are exceptionally privileged to have him among us, to teach us what our Ugandan brothers and sisters know about church unity and church growth that is rooted in Christ, and that takes breath from a common life of prayer in small groups or cells – as they are called in the Ugandan church.

On my desk are the addresses of women from the church in Lodi, members of the Diocese of San Joaquin – the same diocese that recently decided to separate from the Episcopal Church over issues such as the ordination of women and the subsequent ordination of priests and bishops who are openly homosexual. The women from this schismatic Diocese had gone to New Orleans to help with housing rehabilitation, and met up with us while we were there to work with children. They had collected money for the children of the 9th Ward, and when they heard that that is where we were working, they gave us the $500 they had collected - to pass on to the children's camp. This is where true unity lies – in the bonds of affection between people, at the local parish level, people who are simply trying to live as Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ – the savior who gave his life for others – who did not take life from others.

When people come to our door and want to know – before they enter in- if we are caught up in the politics of schism and judgment – I say, “This is a safe place. We confess Jesus as our Lord. We do not wish harm upon anyone. We feed the poor and the hungry. That is our religion. It is safe, in this community that is established with Christ as the foundation and source of our peace, to be exactly who you are – without fear that you will be condemned or harmed.” This may not sound like a whole lot to offer – but it is the gospel of Christ, and it leads to abundant life for all. Thanks be to God.

*Study: Christianity No Longer Looks Like Jesus, By Audrey Barrick. Christian Post Reporter, Tue, Sep. 25 2007

* Origen, (c. 225) I.VI.2, First Principles

*Ignatius of Antioch (50 – 150), Epistle to the Trallians, Chapter VI

*Matthew Henry, 1706 – 1721, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. VI (Acts to Revelations), 1st Corinthians, Chapter 1

Sunday, January 20, 2008

God's Household is for Everyone

Epiphany 2, Year C

The Rev. Linda Campbell

“God’s household is for everyone.”

Epiphany – it’s fun to say. And it’s great when it happens to you. Epiphanies are those a ha! Moments. Those times when you slap your forehead, “Oh, I get it!” When the light bulb goes on. When the fog clears and the light shines. I’ve read that in Israel, the dawn comes quite suddenly. It’s black as night, and then the sun comes up and boom – it’s light. Arise. Shine! Your light has come. Morning is here. The darkness has vanished.

Epiphanies are like that. Like what happened to Paul as he was on his way to arrest some of the followers of “the Way”, as the early Christians were called. He was passionate about the Law, about following the Rules of how to please God, and he was on a mission – God’s mission. But then he was confronted by the living reality of God – blinded by the Christ light of God’s intense love for him personally, confronted by God’s justice and Christ’s Question – Why do you persecute me?

Paul alluded to this experience in his letter to the Ephesians – “surely you have already heard….how the mystery was made known to me by revelation…” This epiphany permanently changed Paul’s life – it changed his life from that of a zealous Pharisee who focused on strict adherence to rules about how to please God, to that of a disciple of Christ who focused on being known, accepted and loved by God, and proclaiming the new things God was doing in the world.

And the new thing that God revealed to Paul was that Gentiles and Jews had a permanent place in the kingdom. That God’s household was inclusive. That God’s household was a place where everyone belonged – where no one was left out. This is the mystery revealed by the grace of the Spirit – in Paul’s words – “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

The truth is, the Source of our Life is not about slavishly following the rules to please God – it is about bowing down, with open hands and hearts before the awesome, incredible mystery of God’s steadfast, faithful, permanent, unfailing, active Love that flows out toward us, reconciling us and drawing us into God.

The truth is, the Source of our Life is God’s active love – and the way to tap into that source of life is to open our hands and heart in trust and dependence. The two traditional stances of prayer reveal this to us. One is to stand with open hands, reaching up to receive and praise. The other is to kneel in humility and trust.

And when the living Christ revealed himself to Paul, Paul’s stance completely changed from clutching stones to throw at his enemies, to opening his hands in radical inclusion and friendship.

This is the mystery of the ages that Paul proclaims - the eternal purpose that God carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord – to gather up all things – all peoples and nations, things in heaven and on earth – into himself. Proclaiming this is what got Paul imprisoned. Living it is what got Jesus crucified. Because the world, the powers that be, for the most part, are about walls and boundaries and judgements about who is good, who is evil, who is acceptable and who is not.

This is as true today, as it was then. Our world is deeply polarized, and life is often held up in terms of absolutes. In our own Episcopal church, as well as in government and international forums, we hear a lot about us vs. them, good vs. evil, orthodox vs. revisionist. And, as the past Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, said, “rather than listening to the other with an undefended heart and a spirit of graced curiosity, people feel obliged to defend their points of view.” But, as he went on to say, “The mystery of our baptism is that in Christ we have all been made irrevocably one – beyond all imaging or desire. Within our own community of faith, we are being called to a radical encounter with Christ in one another, which is not easy when “the other” holds views very different from our own….This is not an easy season in the life of our church, and yet it is in precisely times such as these that a deeper, and more costly, understanding of what it means to be limbs and members of Christ’s body is literally being pulled out of us by the very circumstances we are called to live as a community of faith.”*

The uneasy season in the life of our church to which the Presiding Bishop referred is the decision by the last two General Conventions. The first to include homosexuals in the full life of the church. And the second is to institute the first woman as Presiding Bishop.. Referring to the first, Bishop Spong concluded that “our Church has done an audacious thing. This is … a cause for rejoicing that another in a long list of human prejudices has begun to fall. This is not "cultural trendiness," nor is it a denial of "doctrinal clarity."” Rather, it is the binding together of an ancient faith with the insights of our contemporary world, insights that gender and race and sexual orientation are simply biological givens.

So, our Episcopal church is audacious – but the church was founded in audacity. Paul was an audacious person doing an audacious thing – insisting, to the point of imprisonment, upon the full inclusion of Gentiles in the life of the church - something that had not even been considered possible, much less desirable. But God is persistently, quietly without fanfare, and loudly in the public eye, doing new things – and we, as much as the first Christians, are called to always be on the lookout for what God is up to. In this, we follow the magi, who traveled halfway around the world, to see what new thing God was initiating.

In our modern age of cynicism and easy hopelessness, it isn’t easy to be like the wise men – it sounds foolish and gullible – childish even. It is easy for us to succumb to the despair that things are hopeless and will always be hopeless – look how many billions of people are starving, there is really nothing we can do about hunger. Look how many are without homes, there is really nothing we can do about homelessness. Look how the nations spiral into violence, there is really nothing we can do about war. Look how the politicians are so slick, there is really nothing we can do about campaigns and finance reform and the restoration of civic, democratic discourse. Look how the church degenerates into name calling and threats.

But there is hope, and we are a piece of that hope. We have been baptized into a new identity, and given light and a new set of eyes with which to see – we see with the eyes of Christ and we live in his light. And in this light, we see God active in the world, urging us to offer back the gifts we have been given in order to serve God’s purposes. We see that the first step is to fall on our knees in worship, in homage and in trust that what we have to offer - our open hands, our hearts and lives – is sufficient for God to work miracles.

* Encountered by Love, Episcopal Life, January 2004

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Heaven's Picture Directory

Epiphany, Year A Heaven’s Picture Directory The Rev. Linda Campbell

How many of you have
had your picture taken recently? I was sitting in my office yesterday, and my visitor thought they saw lightening outside – then, "no, that’s flashbulbs going off!" For the last two days, the parish hall has been the site of flashing bulbs, instructions to “lean this way just a little bit,” “Turn your head to the side. No, not quite that far.” “Tilt your head a bit to the right.” “Say Hawaii!”

There’s been an outstanding turn – out for the picture directory and we want to make sure to include everyone … whether you’ve been here eighty years or three months. Whether your birthplace is Baguio City, Philippines or Oakland, California. Whether you’re deeply committed to Rite 1 and 17th century music, or you’d really like to chant Taize, light candles and always use inclusive language. Your picture is important in the picture directory whether you like small and cozy or whether you like big and noisy, whether you prefer the King James version or The Message, whether you would never, ever attend a demonstration against the war or you have several arrests to your name, whether you like organized and orderly, or spontaneous and chaotic.

You. You. You. In all your God given uniqueness, quirkiness, with all your scars and unhealed wounds and fears and anxieties – YOU – your shining face – the epiphany of you – is important. The picture directory isn’t complete until you are in it.

St. Paul didn’t have Olan Mills to help him out, when he wanted to describe the ineffable, indescribable, outrageously improbable mystery of God’s inclusive, welcoming, inviting, enticing love – there were no picture directories that Paul could point to and say, “See, here is a blank spot – that’s where your picture belongs – the Directory’s not complete without it.”

He had words, and he used them. He piled word upon word to try to get across this central point – THE Point – the essential thing at the heart of his ministry – at the heart of his calling. This one thing – this unifying principle for Paul’s ministry – was this: “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

And of himself, sitting in a jail cell, Paul says: “Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power.”

To get the full import of this mystery shrouded from prophets and angels, and revealed to Paul, through God’s grace, would mean transporting ourselves back into the 1st century. Jew / Greek – the walls of separation and division simply don’t mean a whole lot to us. We are accustomed, especially in the Bay Area, to words like inclusion, tolerance, diversity, respect for the other ….. and they may even strike us as not particularly religious words, but words having to do more with secular humanism. My guess is that people having a leisurely breakfast right now down at the Sunnyside CafĂ© would agree with those words as much as you and I do. .

Of course, pick up the Chronicle, scan the national and international news and you will quickly see that even basic respect and tolerance for those who are different is not widely practiced. The overwhelming response – still, in 2008, to those who are different and perceived as threatening is violence, domination and control – whether through economics, politics, or firepower. It is human. The names many native tribes have for themselves simply mean “the people.” … When we are honest with ourselves, we too have the same proclivity to define ourselves over against others – especially others who are really different in ways that we don’t approve of.

Time for a confession. I don’t understand Islam. I haven’t yet taken the time to read the Quran, or commentaries on the Quran. I haven’t even read Karen Armstrong’s recent book on Islam. So – I am ignorant and yet I carry judgement. And I don’t think that it is possible for me to just intellectually jump over that judgement, even if I were to do research. I know it would help if I took it upon myself to form relationships with Muslim believers. It is always more difficult to judge when one is personally involved. Nevertheless – I know personally that it is possible to think of oneself as loving and inclusive and diverse and yet to draw lines – to be divisive in the privacy of one’s heart.

Faced with your “enemy,” it is tempting to pretend reconciliation rather than to face the brutal facts of what you actually think and feel – and then lay yourself bare before God. Prayer is hard work. Change is hard work. And a fundamental re-orientation of your life doesn’t happen automatically. The early church didn’t just easily understand or accept this glorious mystery that Paul reveals as the heart of the gospel. It took dreams, arguments and mysterious encounters, until by the 10th chapter of Acts Peter finally “opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons:” But church conflict didn’t end in the 10th chapter! Paul was hauled before a whole church commission – kind of a Diocesan tribunal – because he insisted on coloring way outside the lines. He finally won through because by the 11th chapter of Act, it is recorded that “When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.” (Acts 11:18)

This wasn’t just a marketing ploy on Paul’s part, or a design to fill the church pews, or a way to poke at the main Christian community back in Jerusalem – Paul was absolutely and utterly convinced, to the point of going to jail and ultimately giving his life – of this one main big idea: read to us last week by John, from Galatians: “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” It is repeated again in this week’s reading from Ephesians: “Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

This is the church’s wealth – this wisdom of God in it’s rich variety – and the mission is to make this wealth – this mystery of God’s boundless inclusive love actively known.

And what do Gentiles – outsiders – bring in their wake? Well, like the Gentile Magi, they bring gifts – and sometimes the established community isn’t quite sure what to do with the gifts. Whether the newcomers are to a church or to a country, they bring gifts. Do you and I have the eyes to see the gifts, and the heart to receive them? The second thing outsiders bring are that they shake up power assumptions. Herod, the established ruler, got pretty bent out of shape thinking that there was another ruler in the neighborhood. The established church of Jerusalem got pretty upset with Paul for changing the power structure – for establishing far flung communities of faith that were building their own ways of doing things. Are you and I open and ready to let power change hands – to let those who haven’t had a voice began having a voice – a voice that effects change? And thirdly, outsiders bring joy. Outsiders can restore a sense of joy to communities whose lives have become kind of ho hum and ordinary. I like earlier biblical translations of the Magi’s response When they saw that the star had stopped, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” The description bends over backward with expression! The NRSV tries to subdue the hyperbole, saying simply they were “overwhelmed with joy,” Either way, you get the picture – they were jumping up and down with happiness! In Acts – as a result of Paul’s conviction that they belonged as well: “when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord:” (Acts 13:48)

Outsiders restore joy, they upset the power balance, and they bring gifts. And the deep abiding long term vision of the church is that there is a place in the heavenly picture directory – whether Olan Mills is in charge or not – for each and every shining face of God’s beloved children. You and you and you. And those who are not yet known to us. Those who have yet to be invited.