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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Family Feud

I've been thinking about the recent spectacle of the Cheney family feud.

It's embarrassing, isn't it?

Liz Cheney, daughter of former VP Dick Cheney is running for nomination as the Republican (of course) Senator in the State of Wyoming. Her sister, Mary, is a lesbian who married her beloved Heather Poe in 2012. They have two children.

Last Saturday night, on Fox News, Liz made an appearance, saying that she believed “in the traditional definition of marriage,” prompting Mary’s spouse, Heather, to comment on Facebook. Then Mary reposted Poe’s remarks, prefacing with, “Liz – this isn’t just an issue on which we disagree – you’re just wrong – and on the wrong side of history.”

Then, the Cheney parents decided to weigh in with this statement:
 “This is an issue we have dealt with privately for many years, and we are pained to see it become public.  Since it has, one thing should be clear. Liz has always believed in the traditional definition of marriage.  She has also always treated her sister and her sister’s family with love and respect, exactly as she should have done.  Compassion is called for, even when there is disagreement about such a fundamental matter and Liz’s many kindnesses shouldn’t be used to distort her position.”
They should have stopped after the first sentence.

They should definitely not have included that last sentence.

'Compassion is called for'? What curious language. Like Mary and Heather and their two children are 'poor things' - charity cases - to be pitied and treated as pathetic wounded, deformed creatures?

It reminded me of the "family feud" going on in the church. That's church with a small 'c'.

Recently, a Methodist minister, Fred Schaefer, was tried by an ecclesiastical court of 13 for presiding at the marriage of his gay son and his beloved (Schaefer and his wife have four children, three of whom are gay). He was found guilty on two charges: “conducting a ceremony that celebrates same-sex unions” and “disobedience to order and discipline of the Methodist Church.”

The jury told Schaefer that he was suspended for 30 days, and said that he must decide whether he can embrace church rules — or, if not, leave the Methodist ministry.

Such compassion, eh? Not to mention generosity.

Schaefer's pastoral assistant at the Zion UMC in Lebanon, PA, preached last Sunday to about 60 congregants, many with tears streaming down their cheeks. “We are a family. Families have struggles. We aren’t the first church to hurt, and we won’t be the last.”

He's right, of course. Two wrongs have never made a right, but I suppose there is some truth to the saying that misery does love company. 

The Episcopal Church's present official stance  from last General Convention, can be found in the language of the resolution in which we allowed trial use of the Supplemental Liturgical texts on the Blessing of the Covenants made between two people of the same gender.

The term used in that resolution is "generous pastoral response".

Le sigh.

I know, I know. They meant well. It's clearly a far sight better than the position of the Methodist Church and eons ahead of the Roman Catholic Church.

That resolution allowed us to take a step forward in the journey to heed the prophetic biblical call to "love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with God."

Yes, the movement toward Marriage Equality is gaining surprising momentum.  In those dioceses where there is no Marriage Equality, it allows churches to provide for some recognition of the sacramental nature of the covenants made between two people of the same gender.

In those dioceses that are in those states where there is Marriage Equality, the Supplemental Liturgical Rites allow us to recognize the sacramental nature of that legal civil right for LGBT people, EVEN THOUGH our marriage canons only allow the institutional church to bestow its blessing on the marriage of two people of opposite gender.

Hence, the "generosity" of that "generous pastoral response." I mean, we ARE slip-sliding around our own canon law, right?

Le sigh.

I have to tell you I find it odious when I'm not embarrassed by it.

Since when does the church allow the state - or anyone else, for that matter - to dictate or define the sacraments of the church?  The law is the law. The sacraments are the sacraments.

Either it's a marriage or it's not.

Either it's equality or it's not.

What part of 'marriage equality' doesn't the church understand?

Recently, the state of Illinois joined 15 other states (and the District of DC) which have marriage equality. I do believe Pennsylvania will be next. There will be more to come. I suspect that by the time we meet in General Convention in Salt Lake City, 25 states - half of this country - will have marriage equality.

State by state, it will happen in these "united states". Predictions are that Marriage Equality will be the law of the land in the next five years. I'm optimistic enough to believe that it will happen, surely within the next decade.

There are two parts to my question about marriage and equality. The first is canon law. I believe we are going to have to think seriously about changing our marriage canons so that they will reflect the equality of civil marriage laws.

My personal opinion is that the church, once again, will be found on the wrong - or, at least the slow - side of history when it comes to the "justice and peace" we proclaim is at our foundation. We could be charged and found guilty by a jury of our peers of duplicity. Thankfully, we also believe in forgiveness of sins.

The second part has to do with the liturgy we use to celebrate and bless the marriage. I have nothing but high praise for the work of the SCLM and the rites of liturgy which they have produced. I think the theology behind the liturgy is more in keeping with an evolved, contemporary understanding of the sacramental nature of marriage than that which is in the Book of Common Prayer.

My personal opinion is that both ought to be offered as viable options for all people - all people - who wish to be married.

My beloved (and most chaste spouse) of 38 years and I were legally married on August 9, 2013 in the First State of Delaware. We thought and prayed long and hard about where to be married.

We have never had the covenant of our marriage blessed by - or in - the church.

We - not our covenant - have been "blessed" in the context of our family and our Massachusetts home by the man who was then our rector 28 years ago. He felt he could not, with ecclesiastical integrity, bless us in the church or even simply bless our covenant. And so it was that the "blessing" was done in the context of a house blessing (kitchen, bathroom, etc.) where he also blessed our family and us. 

It was as compassionate and generous he could be, at that time. 
At that time, we accepted that crumb as the best we were going to get.  
We were still left spiritually - and legally - hungry. I can not even begin to express the anxiety we shared about the fate of our children should either one - or both - of us might have an untimely death. The church did nothing to address that anxiety - spiritually or legally.

Then, when we were living in NJ, Domestic Partnership came to that state and we immediately signed up. At City Hall. The next day. Nine years ago. On July 14, 2004. The receptionist, a member of my congregation, looked up from her desk, smiled and deadpanned, "I guess you're not here for a Yard Sale Permit."

We giggled but we might as well have been. We signed some forms and off we went.

Then, Civil Unions came to NJ. We checked with our lawyer who advised us that, between the Domestic Partnership and our wills and other legal papers, we really needed to do nothing more. He said, "You're covered for now - at least in the State of NJ. Marriage Equality is coming. You don't have to crawl to the altar on your knees, begging for justice."

Then, General Convention decided to have a "generous pastoral response" and allow same-sex couples to utilize the trial use of Liturgical Rites of Blessings for the covenants made between couples of the same gender. We decided to take our attorney's advice and not crawl to the altar, even for the church's blessing.
Then, we moved to DE and, within the year, Civil Unions were not only permitted, but the First State agreed to accept and honor Civil Unions from other states. A little more than a year later, Marriage Equality came to the First State. About two years later, it came to NJ. And now, it's making it's way across the country.

On August 9th of this year, my beloved and I met with three of our very dear friends - two to witness and one to sign the license. We gathered at our very favorite local diner before work at 8 o'clock in the morning. We each ordered our favorite breakfast and told stories of our last 38 years together. We laughed until we cried and cried until we laughed again.

Our friend, Bea, an Irish lass and one of 10 children who had left the convent seven years earlier and has a license as a Justice of the Peace, signed our marriage license, said a prayer, and then toasted us with orange juice. Some of the folks in the diner raised their cups of coffee and glasses of juice.
Having a former nun sign our marriage license felt like poetic justice for these two former Roman Catholic girls. And, that diner filled with scruffy, common folk from Lower Slower Delaware (most of whom had voted for Christine "I'm not a Witch" O'Donnell for Senator a few years earlier), was church. (I think some of them thought that the only man at the table was the 'groom'. Never mind.)

We believe our relationship - and our family - to be our vocation. We believe we have been called together by God to live our lives in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, and we strive to do that in our daily lives and work.

Our children (and children in law) include a CPA, a nurse in an inner city Methadone clinic, an architect, a VP for Development of a major university, an electrician who also moonlights as a graphic artist, a PhD psychologist who runs a community service agency for incarcerated women and their children, a professional stained glass artist, and a Montessori teacher in a school in an inner city in NJ. Our profoundly developmentally delayed adopted daughter works in a bank, sorting coins.

As far as we know, all of them - and our five grandchildren - are heterosexual. I know. We want the best for our children but they can't help it, really. It's just the way God made them.

We believe the covenant of our marriage to be a sacrament. We believe it to be an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace which has blessed us and, we think, our children, our neighborhood, our schools and yes, even the church, for the last 38 years.

As much as we love our little church in the ocean block of Rehoboth Beach, DE and our wonderful rector, we are not sure if we will ever have our marriage blessed by - and in - the institutional church.

Perhaps, one day, if the church changes the marriage canons, we might. We might.

We know the covenant of our marriage is recognized by the state and federal government. We know "the church" - gathered haphazardly as it was that morning of August 9th - recognized and blessed the covenant of our marriage. We know our covenant of marriage is not only legal but a living sacrament.
We are not yet sure what to think about the institutional church. I know. And me, a priest. And, my beloved, the Abbess of the Community of Anamchara Fellowship.

Perhaps, one day - after the marriage canons are truly equal - we'll extend a little "generous pastoral response" ourselves and allow it.
Because we believe in the forgiveness of sins - as difficult as that is - seventy times seven (Mt 18:22).

I trust the Schaefer family and the Cheney family and all the millions of other families with LGBT members who seek marriage equality - as well as the church families of all our respective churches in all our various denominations - will also, one day, find that same forgiveness.

It's really the only compassionate, generous thing to do.

Otherwise, I think Jesus gets embarrassed.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lost, and Finding the Stars

I've seen three movies this weekend.

I've been sorta busy, what with Ms. Conroy being hospitalized and still recovering from some serious abdominal surgery. I think I've been trying to make up for lost time.

I've seen Gravity (which I saw in 3-D), 12 Years A Slave, and Captain Phillips.

All three were amazing films, each in their own way.

If you haven't seen any of them, allow me a very brief synopsis. I promise not to give away any information that will spoil the movie for you.

Gravity is about two astronauts who survive the mid-orbit destruction of a Space Shuttle and attempt to return to Earth. I sat on the edge of my seat the whole time, palms sweaty, heart racing.

12 Years A Slave is a 2013 British-American epic historical drama film, an adaptation of the 1853 autobiography Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery. He worked on plantations in the state of Louisiana for 12 years before his release.  The story is powerful, but, in this case, the art of story telling through film - in my humble, not well educated opinion - did not do it the justice it deserved.

Captain Phillips is the dramatic portrayal of the true story of merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips who was taken hostage by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean during the Maersk Alabama hijacking in 2009. This was another edge-of-the-seat sitter, with skillful storytelling to rival Argo, the 2012 Academy award winning historical drama thriller film directed by and starring Ben Affleck.

Captain Phillips and the "new captain"
As different as each of these stories is, there is an interesting theme in all three.

Each of the central characters are simply living their lives, doing their respective jobs, when something happens, out of the blue, to change the course of their lives.

You're a woman and a physician, working on an experiment in outer space, when a Soviet space station suddenly destructs and, even more suddenly, debris speeds through space, placing your space ship and - in fact, your very life - in danger.

You're a descendant of slaves, but you're a free man living in a time of slavery who makes a living selling the produce you've grown on the land that you own, augmented by the meals your wife cooks for local taverns and the music you play for rich people and suddenly, you are offered a deal that's almost too good to be true. You take it, not knowing that not only is the deal false but it is the means by which twelve years of your life are thrown into unspeakable, inhuman cruelty.

You're a merchant mariner, living a quiet life in rural Vermont when you're not at sea, earning a comfortable living for your wife and two children when the cargo ship you are sailing as captain is hijacked by Somali pirates and your life and the life of all your crew members is suddenly in danger.

Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Or, you're a Hospice nurse, not only simply doing your job but doing it with compassion and kindness, transforming your tasks into corporal works of mercy, when suddenly, three ulcers which had been silently brewing in your upper abdomen and esophagus become infected, threatening the rest of your body with peritonitis and septicemia.

In each case, you must rely on the kindness - and skill and abilities - of others to see you through. Sometimes it works and sometimes it fails miserably.

But, there are moments when you also have to dig deep into places in your heart and soul and mind and psyche previously unexplored and unexamined and, more significantly, untested. 

I don't think it is a coincidence that there are as many movies as there are right now with this theme. 

There remain greedy people who think of people as possessions and many workers in a variety of industries work at wages so low, and without health care - or any other - benefits, that their poverty begins to redefine a modern system of indentured servitude.

Racism still rears its ugly head, especially visible in the prison industrial complex. It is shocking and sobering to recognize that many prisons have a higher ratio of African Americans in its population than the prisons in South Africa during the height of Apartheid. It is also stunning to learn that many of those who are in those prisons are there for the flimsiest of reasons - tantamount to having been kidnapped off the street in broad daylight.

Drug addiction provides a dependency so strong it has been called "chemical slavery".

12-Years a Slave - The "Soap Scene"
There are Somali pirates on the Indian Ocean who look like elementary schoolyard bullies when compared with corporate pirates who plunder commodities here and abroad and bury their booty in offshore, tax exempt bank accounts.

A sudden health care crisis can throw an entire family into a tailspin of anxiety and worry but, without affordable health insurance, it can also mean bankruptcy and homelessness and hunger and serve as the portal into the endless, boundless abyss of poverty and despair.

If there are lessons to be learned from these three movies, it is about the power of one, yes, but it is also about the power of community - some of whom are complete strangers - to provide solace in inconsolable situations.

It's also about the power of people who are capable of betrayal but it is also about the power of other people to do the right thing, even if it means putting yourself in danger.

It's about the power of people to jump up and down on the arc of history until it bends toward justice.

It's about trusting the message that the lost will, one day, be found even if it means that you find in yourself the power you thought you lost (or thought you never had), to love in the face of hate, to hope in the face of despair, and to find your greatest strength in moments of your greatest weakness.

This weekend, I affirmed three things I've known, but momentary forgotten as I've wander around feeling lost in worry and concern.

There is time that is lost but that can, in fact, be found.

Redemption is not necessarily a solitary act; often it takes a community of strangers.

And this:

Sometimes, you have to reach way down in order to touch the stars.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Dead or Alive

Dead or Alive (Luke 20:27-38)
A Sermon by the Rev’d Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton
All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Rehoboth Beach, DE
November 10, 2013 – Proper 27C

Prayer (sung) “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing there will be! When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory.” In the name of Our Risen Lord. Amen.

Well, you'll excuse me for bursting into song like that. It’s just that, when I’m wrestling with the Gospel – or, some of the characters in the Gospel – I sometimes have to sing an old, old hymn in order to stay focused on the Gospel message.

I don’t know whether to be annoyed or amused by the Sadducees in this morning’s Gospel story. They are the very definition of tedious. One of my friends from Texas says that "you can always tell a tedious person because they actually enjoy separating fly poop from pepper".

Isn't that just like a Sadducee?

As you may recall, both the Sadducees and the Pharisees were religious parties in Jesus' day. Both were critical of and were criticized by Jesus.

But, since the Gospel mentions them today, let’s focus briefly on the Sadducees. They thought of themselves as  the "conservatives” of their day. I think of them as the “fundamentalists” of their time. They accepted only the written Law of Moses as authoritative and rejected subsequent revelation.

As a result, the Sadducees denied many of the doctrines held by the Pharisees and by Jesus, including the resurrection of the dead, the existence of angels and spirits, and the meting out of rewards and punishment after death (heaven and hell). Although a religious party, the Sadducees were more important as a political force.

Is this beginning to sound even vaguely familiar? Who said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”? And, just as the fundamentalists of our day are overly concerned – even obsessed – with all things pertaining to sex and sexuality, so too were the Sadducees – the fundamentalists of antiquity.

In this morning’s gospel, we are privy to the first time the Sadducees have come before Jesus to ask a question. Let me point out that this is Chapter 20 of Luke’s gospel. Just to put this in context, let’s briefly review Luke’s gospel to this point.

Let’s set aside the rumors about his birth and his baptism which take up the first couple of chapters of Luke’s gospel, certainly caused a stir. The first time we hear that Jesus is causing a buzz in the community is in Chapter 4 when Jesus, “full of the Holy Spirit”, returns to Galilee and preaches his first sermon back in his old hometown synagogue. That sermon, by the way, got so many people so filled with wrath, they rose up and chased him out of the city and threatened to throw him over a cliff to his death.

Then, he went to Capernaum where he went to another synagogue and healed a man with an unclean spirit and healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever. He ended the day by healing “multitudes” of people who proclaimed, “You are the Son of God!” That’s just the first 4 chapters.

By chapter 5, Jesus has healed a man with leprosy and even the Pharisees had come out to see the man from Galilee heal a man so crippled by infirmities he had to be lowered in from the roof.

That was the Pharisees. But not the Sadducees. Oh, no. They are nowhere to be seen. They are, no doubt, in the Temple, praying. Like all good pious people should. But, Jesus goes on preaching and teaching, healing and performing miracles, attracting disciples and believers and causing quite a buzz.

Finally, in Chapter 20 (TWENTY!), the Sadducees make their appearance. Which is more than annoying. I mean, you might think they would have ask him something – SOMEthing – about the miracles of healing or the precepts of his teaching. No, here’s what they ask:

"Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her."

Honest to Pete! Really? Seriously? Are you kidding me?

I tried to imagine one of the disciples reporting this scene using a Twitter account. I imagine their “tweet” might go something like, “Tedious! All these boyz want to know is which husband will be first in line to have sex with his wife when they are in heaven. SMH (that’s Twitter talk for Shake My Head). #unbelievable. #sexobsessed #bostonredsoxrule.” (Oh, no, wait. That last one was my tweet! Sorry.)

Jesus sets them all straight – but it’s more than 16 characters, so it wouldn’t fit in a Tweet. He brushes aside the foolishness of their tedious question and makes it absolutely clear what he thinks about the resurrection and angels and spirits as well as rewards and punishments.

Jesus says, “Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive."

That’s not only a great Tweet, that’s the sermon. That’s it, right there.

To God, whether we are alive or dead, we are always alive in the Lord of Life. The God we worship, the God to whom we sing praises and hymns, the God to whom we offer our prayers and supplications -  that God loves us, dead or alive.

As a Hospice Chaplain, that’s probably the one thing I hear myself saying over and over again to my Hospice patients and their families. That’s because the one thing Hospice patients are concerned with – in addition to what will actually happen to them, physically, when they die, and whether or not there will be any pain – is this: What will happen after I die?

In that way, we share the same concern with the ancient Sadducees and Pharisees. We want to know if there is life after this life. We want to know if there really is a heaven and hell. We want to be reassured that we’ll see our loved ones after we die – if we’ll all be together again in that great by-and-by.

And, I tell them the truth: I don’t know. No one knows, really. I only know what I choose to believe. And, I believe the teachings of Jesus who says, “Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive."

I tell them that they don’t have to believe what I believe, but if they don’t know what to believe, then believe in my belief and that will give them the hope they need. As author Annie Lamott writes, “Hope is not about proving anything. It's about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak stuff (actually, she says 'shit') anyone can throw at us.”

You know, I don’t believe God cares two figs about who we married or how many times we married or if we were celibate or sexually active. I believe God cares whether or not we loved one another, and tried to love each other as God loves us.

Dead or alive, God loves us. That’s what I believe. That’s because I believe that God’s love is unconditional. That’s a great mystery to me. God loves me as much as God loves you. And, God loves the Sadducees and the Pharisees as much as God loves the disciples.

I know, right? How can that be? God loves Jerry Falwell as much as God loves Mother Theresa? Why, yes. I believe God does. God loves Gandhi as much as God loves Desmond Tutu? My answer would be an unequivocal and resounding “Yes!”.

Oh, but wait! There's more. You mean, God even loves that foul-mouthed, drunken old coot of an Uncle Arnold and his tedious, persnickety wife Mabel who will be at Thanksgiving Dinner again this year? My answer is “Yes, and not only that, but you better get ready because Uncle Arnold and Aunt Mabel will also be with you in heaven.”

Oh, noooooo!?!?!?

Oh, yeeessssss!!!!!!!

I know, right? When I began to really enter and explore the great mystery of God’s love for me – broken, foolish sinner that I am – I also came to the realization that if God could love one such as me, then God loved everyone. Even people I don’t like very much.

I was doing okay with that for awhile, until I realized that God loved them so much that they were going to go to heaven, too. In fact, like it or not, we were all going to be together in heaven one day. 

Even people I don’t like. Even people who don’t like me.

Wait a minute! How crazy is that? See also: The Great Mystery of God’s love.

As Annie Lamott writes, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

That’s when I realized that I had to learn how to forgive. That holding on to grudges was killing me, and killing my soul. In many ways, I had so much pent up anger that my soul was already dead.  As I learned from one very wise friend in a 12-Step program, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” 

Wen I started to learn how to forgive, I learned to live. And yet, here’s what I learned: dead or alive, God still loved me. That opened my heart to love myself and others.

I think the Psalmist must have been thinking of that Great Mystery of God’s love when she or he wrote down the psalm we heard this morning:

Sing to the LORD a new song, *
                                    for he has done marvelous things

Shout with joy to the LORD, all you lands; *
                                    lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.

When you are confronted with the Great Mystery of God’s Love, there’s really only one thing you can do. Love God and all of God’s creation right back. And that makes you want to sing a new song and shout it out with joy.

Which is why, whenever I find myself in the midst of tedious people, like the Sadducees we encountered in this morning’s gospel. Or, with people who tell me I’m going to hell because of who and how I love. Or, with people who take what they believe and use it to pass judgment on others, telling them with absolute certainty who will get to heaven and who will go to hell.

In that moment, I find myself humming that great old Gospel hymn. And, I find my heart softens and my anger melts. I just imagine being with them in heaven. Both of us perfect. Both of us healed.  Both of us now knowing The Truth. Both of us standing in the radiance of such amazing, divine Love that nothing else matters any more. Not who was married to whom  or how many times they were married or how they prayed.

It won’t matter who you loved. All that will matter is that you loved.

And, dead or alive, God loves you.  And, isn’t that absolutely amazing?

So, I leave you with this thought and this song. It works for me. I hope it works for you the next time you have to deal with a tedious, judgmental person.

“While we walk the pilgrim pathway, clouds will overspread the sky; but when traveling days are over, not a shadow, not a sigh.”

“When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be. When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory!”

Somebody in the church give me an Amen.