Sunday, September 27, 2015

"Wrestling with God" MCC Detroit/MCC Windsor, September 27, 2015


Readings
The story so far: Our last reading was about Abraham and the angels who visited him. We are skipping a generation here, when we come to the story of Jacob, grandson of Abraham. Jacob is a bit of a trickster, like Coyote in Native American Navaho tradition. He has a twin, Esau, who is actually the older one. Even before they were born, they wrestled, and Jacob was born holding on to Esau’s heel. When they grew up, they were constantly at odds with each other, and as parents sometimes do, Jacob’s mother, Rachel, favoured Jacob, while their father, Isaac, favoured Esau. Through a trick, Jacob received the birthright blessing—inheritance—from Isaac that was actually due to Esau. Naturally this made Esau angry, and Jacob had to flee for his life to his relative, Laban. There he met Rachel and fell in love. Rachel’s father, Laban, required him to work for seven years before he could marry Rachel; then he tricked Jacob and substituted Leah, Rachel’s older sister, on the wedding night. Jacob had to work seven more years before he could marry Rachel. Jacob repented what he had done to Esau, having been tricked himself and not liking it, and decided to go back home and seek forgiveness from Esau. This is where we rejoin the story, as Jacob returns to his home.

Genesis 32:22-30
That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and Someone wrestled with him till daybreak.  When the Someone saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then Someone said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Someone asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then Someone said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But Someone replied, “Why do you ask my name?” and blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

Mark 14:32-36
They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, my Heart,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

*** 
Holy One, you are as close as our hearts; you desire nothing more than relationship with us, and are willing to join in a struggle with us for that relationship. Give us grace to struggle, and grace to win and grace to submit. In all your names, amen.

Jacob, Jacob. He’s the original bad boy: his mother’s favourite, the one whose charm lets him get away with things no one else could; he’s the relative who always stirs things up at the holiday get-togethers, and then stands back watching the result. He somehow always gets what he wants, and while he’s not ruthless, he’s not above putting undue pressure on others. Esau isn’t exactly the sharpest crayon in the box, but he’s still the oldest and his father’s favourite. But one day Jacob goes too far, tricking Esau out of their father Isaac's blessing, and he has to leave town before his brother kills him in righteous anger. Like so many before and after him in this same situation, Jacob goes to relatives who offer him work and a place to stay until things cool down at home. That time away teaches him many things—the value of family, the pain of being tricked himself and empathy with those he has tricked. He comes to a maturity of spirit that allows him to wrestle God to a draw, and then to win. 

Fr. John McNeill, whose life we are remembering and celebrating today, wrestled mightily with God over the place of homosexuality—and bisexuality—in the sight of God. Fr. John, as a good Catholic and Jesuit, had been taught that homosexuality was disordered, and not part of God’s plan; therefore, anyone who identified as gay or bi had to be celibate—had to renounce physical intimacy with a same gender partner. And yet, as he worked with same-gender loving people, and knew himself to be gay, he found it harder and harder to accept that a God who had created individuals as same-gender loving would also forbid them the same deep, meaningful relationships that different-gender loving individuals could share. He struggled and wrestled for many years, finally publishing his book "The Church and the Homosexual" in the 1970s. This created a firestorm that ended in his being silenced by the Roman Catholic church—he could no longer write or speak on the topic. He continued, however, to work with LGB clients and patients.  After several more years, he was commanded to no longer work with same-gender-loving people. This he could not accept, and continued his work. Fr. John was expelled from the Jesuit order and removed from the priesthood. While this was devastating, he also realized he had been freed. With no constraints on his writing or speaking or work, Fr. John was free to proclaim God’s unending and faithful love to same-gender-loving people. 

Wrestling with God. Everyone of us has been in that place. Has anyone here never had to wrestle with their faith, with their God-image, with their own fears and anger and regret? Didn’t think so.  When have we wrestled with God? Maybe it was when we were first coming out, and could not reconcile our faith with our knowledge of ourselves as same-gender-loving people. Maybe it was when we felt called to a work or ministry or some other action, but could not see a way clear to respond—finances, our own reluctance, the fear of what others might say stood in our way—and we wrestled with God. Maybe we, too, were caught between two points that seemed irreconcilable—and so we wrestled with God. 

So Jacob sits alone by the river. We don’t know why he stayed there by himself—perhaps he wanted some time to gather his thoughts, to bolster his courage before he met his brother again. Maybe he wanted to pray, to be sure he was doing the right thing in the right way. 

We don’t know how the wrestling started, either. Just this person and Jacob, suddenly wrestling. We don’t know exactly who it was that Jacob is  wrestling, either. Someone in the Narrative Lectionary group on Facebook suggested it was Esau—brothers, especially twin brothers, will do that, apparently—sneak up and attack. Sometimes the translation says it was an angel who wrestled with Jacob; others that it was God. The person is symbolic, of course—mostly, Jacob is wrestling with himself. He’s struggling to come to terms with himself as both a person of integrity and goodness, and also a person who tried to cheat his twin brother out of everything he had. 

Hard as the struggle is, Jacob doesn’t give up. In fact, his opponent uses a bit of trickery to get Jacob to let up—dislocating Jacob’s hip. Once again, the trickster is tricked—not only did Laban trick him, but Jacob’s wrestling opponent does too. In both cases, Jacob is changed, is marked. After Laban tricks him, Jacob ends up with two wives, Leah and Rachel—which causes issues down the line—and after this wrestling match, he walks forever after with a limp. 

Fr. McNeill came away from his struggle with the sure knowledge that he could not turn away from his same-gender-loving clients, patients, friends, sisters and brothers in Christ. He was marked by the certain knowledge of God’s all-inclusive love and care. It led him to struggles with human institutions—the Catholic Church and his own Jesuit order—but he had been marked by his struggle with God and that courage, that insight, that understanding, could not be taken away from him. 
We are marked by those struggles with God too. We find a new direction in our lives, a new purpose; we learn the power of love, or wisdom, or courage. Whatever it is, we take something away from it that marks us forever. 

I always try to come back to a why?, with challenging readings like this. Why would God do such a thing as wrestle with Jacob—or send an angel to do so, if you prefer—when, one would think, God could simply tell Jacob he was being controlling, a bully, a trickster. 

Because, my friends, God is a God of relationship. Certainly God could have simply told Jacob some home truths, lectured him, given him a good talking-to. But the reality is that experience is the best teacher. When children are told not to do something, how many of them don’t do it? Right—it’s almost like a dare. “Don’t touch that stove! Don’t look in that closet! Don’t swing too high!” They just go ahead and do it, don’t they? We’re just like that as adults too. Something about how humans are wired. So yes, God could have had a conversation with Jacob, as my mother used to call them—“Martha, we need to have a conversation about your math grades….” But God’s infinite wisdom knew that would make little difference. Yes, Jacob had experienced being tricked by Laban--which probably opened his eyes to what it was like being on the other side of a trick. But God chose to bring it home in another way. God cheated—“When the Someone saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the person.” God put Jacob’s leg out of joint so that Jacob would not win. And yet it seems he did after all, because it is his opponent who asks to be let go. 

In that wrestling match, Jacob and God come to know each other more fully. They take each other’s measure; they deepen their relationship. Wrestling is a very intimate sport--this was not a debate or discussion. They are deep into each other's personal space, flesh to flesh. And in that deeper relationship, Jacob is able to deny God, to say, so far and no further, to refuse to be overcome. And God respects that! 

Here is the beautiful thing, the one thing I want you to take home with you today, if you remember nothing else that I have said. Jacob wrestled with God and it was OK! 

Our God is not a dictator or a control freak. God is OK with questions. Think about a really good teacher you had—they weren’t afraid of questions, because that is how a person learns. Struggling with our faith, our love, our doubts, our understanding of God—that doesn’t weaken our faith or love or understanding, nor strengthen our doubts—like exercising a muscle, doubt and wrestling make our love and faith stronger. That struggle, that doubt, helps us find the bedrock of our faith, of our love. We may find those foundations look very different than we had thought they did—I think Fr. John had that experience. But they are still there, and they are strong enough to hold us up. 

My friends, we all struggle with God, in ways large and small. It is part of our nature, part of being human. Anyone who tells you they have never struggled—never doubted, never even wondered—is either a child in faith or not being truthful. The simple-seeming question of why good people suffer is a basic struggle people have with God. Those of us in the LGBT community have struggled with how to reconcile what the institution of the church has told us with our knowledge of God and of ourselves as God’s beloved child. There are many struggles, and we have all experienced many. 

And they have left their marks! Like Jacob limping, some of us show our marks plainly—those of us who heard and accepted God’s call on our lives to serve as clergy, those of us who recognize God’s love for them and share it openly with others through works of hope and charity; those who are confident of God’s love and so share it with others. We have brothers and sisters, though, who have other marks. They have been so damaged, so hurt in a struggle to understand how God can love them that they have left—faith, hope, the knowledge of God’s love for them—all discarded as they seek a path of wisdom, sure that anything that causes so much pain cannot be a divine path. And they are right. Because they were not struggling with God; they were struggling with institutions and individuals, fallible and prone to mistakes, even terrible mistakes such as telling someone that God cannot and does not love them. 

Here is the difference: When I came out, I struggled with my call. I knew God had called me to ministry—I felt that as clearly as sunshine on my face. But my church at the time, the United Methodist Church, would not ordain me; I would be summarily expelled from the ranks of those on the path to ordination, and forbidden to respond to God’s call on my life. I struggled—and the marks I received were pain, and depression, and grief and rejection and confusion. But someone wise said to me, “Your call is from God, not the United Methodist Church.” And I struggled again, but this time with God—where could I go, how could I answer this call, this demand which had consumed five years of my life? What was I to do? Why had God called me if the very place I heard the call was not where I was to serve? And yes, there were marks. The bitter-sweet sense of Methodism in my family and life; the excellent seminary education I received at a Methodist seminary, Wesley Seminary in DC; the understanding that calls may change and transmute over time; the knowledge that I do have the strength and courage to stand up to an institution and say, “No, this is wrong, this is hurting people, this is not what God desires.” When I struggled with the institution, the results were pain, a sense of being lost, and grief. When I struggled with God, the results were resolution, understanding and a new sense of purpose that led me to MCC. 

So maybe you’re wondering about now how that Gospel reading fits in. Why did I include that? My friends, when I said everyone struggles with God,  I meant everyone—Jesus too struggled with God. That night in Gethsemane, Jesus wrestled with what he knew God wanted—balanced against his very human fear. In the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, the struggle is resolved by Jesus’ anger—"OK, I’ll show you, God! I can die—just watch me!"  But I don’t get a sense of that in this reading at all. Jesus wrestles with God, and is reassured. God is with him and will be with him, even through what is coming—Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and ultimately, resurrection. The marks of that struggle are on him, too—his serenity in the face of the faithlessness of his disciples, the derision of those who mock him like the soldiers, those who demand answers they will not understand, like Herod. It carries him through the fear, the pain, the grief of betrayal.

Jacob struggled. Jesus struggled. Father John struggled. We struggle. We receive the marks of that wrestling that strengthens us and gives us the grace to rise again in the morning, changed and marked by the experience, and able to go on. 

In all God’s many names, amen.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

“That Blood Thing” MCC WIndsor, September 6, 2015

Hebrews 9:1-14
Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary.  A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lamp stand and the table with its consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant.  Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now.
When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order.
But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

Message “That Blood Thing”

Will you pray with me? Loving God, be with us as we seek to know you better; give us wisdom and grace to see more clearly your ways, the work you have for us, and the beauty of your ways. Amen. 

Today we are winding up our look at Hebrews. It’s been challenging  in many ways—the constant references to the practices of the Jerusalem Temple, which doesn’t even exist anymore and hasn’t for almost 2000 years; the insistence on the analogy between Jesus and the High Priest; and of course, the concept of substitutionary atonement, which we discussed last week—the idea that instead of the sacrifice of animals for human sins, Jesus became the perfect sacrifice demanded by God, and that Jesus therefore substituted himself for the animals and was sacrificed to clear our sins away. I take issue with this, mostly because I don’t believe God wants blood sacrifice, whether real or symbolic. 

In today’s reading, the writer (who was not Paul, regardless of tradition) goes into more depth about that blood sacrifice. His argument is that the sins of humans require more than the blood of animals; that the animal sacrifices were a sort of temporary measure, to be used until a better way presented itself. And, the writer of Hebrews is saying, Jesus was that perfect sacrifice. Just like the animals used in the temple sacrifices had to be perfect and without a blemish—no lame sheep or crook-horned cattle, no chickens with mange—the sacrifice offered to eliminate human sin for all time had to be perfect too. Therefore, Jesus, the child of God, without sin and following perfectly God’s will and God’s commands, is the perfect sacrifice. His death on the cross was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices—everyone who believes in God and Jesus as God’s child has had those sins cleared away. 

But is that the sort of God we follow? Does a God who says that love of God and our neighbours as we love ourselves is the centre of faith really insist that the Divine Child be killed before God will forgive sin? What kind of parent insists on their child’s death as a requirement of the parent forgiving what other individuals have done to them? I’ve mentioned before David Blumenthal’s book, “Facing the Abusing God,” and I highly recommend it. He wrestles with the duelling concepts of a God of love and justice, who advocates for the widow, the orphan, the homeless and the poor, and yet also demands death for Jesus, stands idle when children are abused, and was silent during the Holocaust. 

Here is where the rubber meets the road, where the stuff gets real, where the shoe pinches, or whatever cliché saying you like. This is where we must each carve out our understanding of God and God’s action in Jesus and with us. We don’t live by what our teachers or  parents of friends or pastors believe. In the end, what we have is what we believe—that’s what we live by. If a person believes that God demands blood and pain and sacrifice—then they themselves will expect not only to shed their blood,  to experience pain and sacrifice, to become, in effect martyrs—but they will expect others to do the same. 

This difference in understanding what God asks of God's people is one of the many reasons for the chasms between various faith traditions. Those who believe they are being asked to sacrifice are not held back by the considerations that make others hesitate. This is the faith that can create martyrs, who give up their lives in sacrifice—either figuratively or literally—in confidence that this is what is expected of them, and that God loves them the better for it. Others who do not believe that God requires that ultimate sacrifice nonetheless serve  God with love and fervour, equally confident that they too are serving God, and by resisting that ultimate sacrifice, more fully and completely.

And by martyrs here, I don’t mean people who were made literal martyrs by the actions of others—victims of assassination, such as Bishop Oscar Romero or Dr. Martin Luther King—that sacrifice of their lives was made for them, not by them. I mean those who feel called to sacrifice their lives, health, families, well-being in more symbolic ways—justice work, for example. 

Please know that I am not saying that one is right and the other wrong—for those who choose to give their lives to social justice, working to end discrimination, hunger, poverty—that is the right choice. For those who choose to work towards justice, but also work in the home, in the family, to promote love of God and each other in the workplace or the neighbourhood—that the right choice for them. There are many ways to serve God, and many gifts for doing so. None of us possess all the gifts, and we each have our own gift, our own means for serving God. 

This is what each of us must wrestle with—how do we see God, how do we understand the force of Love in the universe? What kind of God do we serve? Do we recognise that God in each other? In the world? 

One of the meatiest, most satisfying and most difficult courses I had in seminary was Systematic Theology. Theology is our human study of God—who God is and what God means to us, how we believe God works in the world and through each of us, and so on. The systematic part of Systematic Theology is putting the various answers together so that they are mutually supportive and coherent. For example, it wouldn’t make sense to say God prefers pepperoni pizza on the one hand and to say that God won’t tolerate bread on the other hand. Bread is a part of pizza; unless you come up with a very specialised understanding of pizza crust—a pizza made with potato pancakes, or fried mashed cauliflower—which wouldn’t be bread as we understand it anyway--the two statements are incompatible. 

My course at Wesley was a year long. There were other theology courses available after you took the systematic courses, studying various theologians like Dietrich Bonheoffer, Thomas Merton, John Wesley, Jurgen Moltmann, and Kark Barth, so the average student had a lot of options to choose from in studying theology. However…that first, basic systematics class required something that would be the foundation of everything you did afterwards. 

We had to write our own creed. Many of us know the Nicene Creed, or the Apostolic Creed.  Take a look in your hymnals, pages 918 and 920—and 919, for those of you fluent in French. These are the creeds, or statements of belief, that many Christian churches use. There is also a New Creed of the United Church in Canada. This is what a creed looks like. The word “creed” comes from the Latin word “credo,” which means “I believe.” 

So we had to sit down and write our own creed—what we believed about God and Jesus Christ and Spirit and how God acts in the world, and so on. For the first semester, we wrote that creed. We could use one of the historic creeds as an example, but we had to use our own words. Then, for the second semester, we had to rewrite it. Our professor suggested we take it back out every year or so and rewrite it as needed. 

There were two points to that exercise, as difficult as it was and as much as we complained about it. First, we had to think analytically about what we really believed—were we just saying the words or did we believe them? If not, what did we believe? Does it make sense with the rest of what we believe? Will it work in the real world? How does it do when it comes up against my reality? That of my colleagues? We discussed them in class, and were freely challenged by each other and the professor. In the writing and rewriting, we were forced to decide what we really believed—does it just sound good? Is it an echo of Barth or de Chardin? It’s OK if we are basing our theology on someone else—hard to avoid it—but we need to know the foundations on which we are building. Is this still what I believe? This event or the other has happened—a death, a birth, a crisis in our local congregation, a job loss—has that affected how I believe and if so, how? Secondly, through the class discussions and our work with congregations as interns, we were brought face to face with the impact of our belief on the congregations we were preparing to serve. One of the hottest debates I had in seminary was with a fellow student who said she would have told a grieving parent that her child was in a better place, and that God had kept the child innocent and pure. I challenged her "easy out" theology that refused to struggle with the grief of a dead child on a world with a loving benevolent God--she had let God off the hook. I drew on both my belief, as honed in writing my creed, and my experience with my neice's death at age 12, a crib death in the congregation I was serving, and my own experience as a parent with the fears of losing a child--that explanation did not ease my sister's grief, give her understanding or peace--nor did it help the bereft parents in my congregation. 

If you are so moved—and I recommend the attempt—make the experiment. Look at those creeds in the hymnal—they and others are available online—and see if they match what you believe. If they don’t match, why not? How would you change it? What would your creed say? 

The ancient philosopher Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. The unexamined faith, while still worth believing, is not as deep and rewarding and strong as the faith that has been studied and tested and made our own. 

If nothing else, the letter to the Hebrews can teach us this—find your faith, your belief; work for it, to understand and know what you believe. Don’t take someone else’s word for it; that is their faith. It may work for you, or it may not—you don’t know unless you work to understand what you believe. It’s tough work, I won’t pretend it isn't. But when you have done the work—or as you continue to do the work, I should say--you will have a faith you know you believe and that you can defend and that you can base your life on. It will guide and strengthen you in your work for God. 

In all God’s names, amen.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Summertime, and the Livin' was Easy...

And it was! I continued with Trivia, took on some new responsibilities at work, slept in from time to time (!!), and was grateful for A/C! 
But summer is unofficially over, and it's time to ease back into the routine(s) of fall and winter. 
I have some thoughts the political scene as well as a few observations on the spiritual (not to mention a couple on where the two meet). I'm continuing for the second year with the Narrative Lectionary, and looking forward to that. There are more resources for it as more of us use it, which is helpful--but I also enjoy writing my own! 
I also want to get back in the habit of posting my sermons (messages, musings, reflections, homilies). I did a series of interactive ones, which is, I think, when I got out of the habit. 
Bring it on, Autumn!