Sunday, July 18, 2010

Homily: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost [July 18, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

If you’ve been following the international church news this week, you’ll have noticed that the General Synod of the Church of England has been preoccupied with the question of women bishops, an issue which the Episcopal Church settled in 1976. The Church of England has ordained women priests only since the 1990s, and in 2008 it agreed to proceed to the ordination of women bishops. Since that time, Anglican conservatives in England have threatened to leave the church if women are allowed to exercise episcopal authority.
As I have followed this story over the past week, I’ve wished that some of the opponents of women bishops had spent some time thinking about the ministry of St. Thecla, a first century Christian missionary and evangelist who exercised as much ecclesiastical authority as any contemporary bishop—male or female—you could name.
In the early days of Christianity, Paul was accompanied on his missionary journeys by a young woman named Thecla, a virgin of noble birth from Iconium in Asia Minor. Thecla met Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey there and became an important leader in the Christian missionary movement, accompanying them to Ephesus and beyond. She was apparently dedicated, fearless, and beautiful. She is not mentioned in the New Testament but is discussed at length in many other contemporary texts, including an early Christian document, “The Acts of Paul and Thecla”.
Because the Thecla story is so interesting to modern biblical scholars, many Christians have dusted off “The Acts of Paul and Thecla” and given it a try. It’s not so compelling a read that you should adjust your summer beach novel plans, but it’s very interesting, especially in the light of England’s current flap about the authority of women. I cannot get very far in the Thecla story without being arrested by this line: “And Thecla said to Paul: I shall cut my hair, and follow thee whithersoever thou mayest go.” Perhaps cutting her hair was Thecla’s way of making herself less appealing to the male population of Ephesus-- thus removing, by this first-century makeover, an impediment to her apostolic effectiveness.
But maybe physical beauty was only part of Thecla’s problem. Maybe she desired to cut her hair not so much to deter lustful advances but more as a support to her ecclesiastical authority. Because the Roman world in which Thecla worked could not imagine authoritative women, Thecla gave herself a leadership image that her followers could understand. Cutting her hair was the early church equivalent of wearing a power suit.
Several years ago I read with interest John Dominic Crossan’s and Jonathan Reed’s book, "In Search of Paul". The book shows how Paul and Thecla worked as a missionary team and exercised equal authority in the churches they founded. Not surprisingly, as Christianity became more “established”, the memory of Paul’s role grew as that of Thecla’s shrank. Roman culture, which organized itself entirely around hierarchies, could not imagine a church in which women held positions of authority. Crossan’s and Reed’s book thus poses a larger set of questions. As they put it, “Does a search for Paul . . . bring Thecla, women, and equality back steadily and inevitably into the light until female and male stand together side by side in the full life of the center?” ["In Search of Paul", p.xiv]
What these scholars are showing us, of course, is the way in which the story of the authentic authority of women in the apostolic Christian community has itself been systematically erased over time. It seems as if what conservative Christians might, in another context, call “revisionists” have succeeded in rewriting the history of the roles of women and men in the apostolic church. No wonder Thecla wanted to cut her hair.
It is in the light of reflecting on this restored story of Thecla that the Gospel for today—Luke’s familiar story of Mary sitting and listening at Jesus’s feet while her sister Martha busies herself with the tasks of hospitality—makes sense to me. As Jesus says, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." [Luke 10.42]
I have long given up the practice of either praising or blaming Martha and Mary for being “active” or “contemplative”. This is not a story about work and rest. It does not contrast the life of ministry with the spiritual life. It is very much a story about the equality of women and men. The hard-working Martha upbraids her more reflective sister not because she is taking it easy. Martha’s critique of Mary is far more serious: by taking her place at Jesus’s feet instead of in the kitchen, Mary is acting like a disciple rather than a domestic. In other words: she is behaving like a man. In Jesus’s day, women absented themselves from the living room and worked in the kitchen. But here Mary stays in the living room and so takes her place in the public discourse of religious life. In the Palestinian Jewish houses of the first century, men had one sphere and women another. Mary has crossed a boundary and so has offended her more traditional sister. When Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part,” he is not telling Martha simply to take a chill. He is, instead, telling Martha that Mary’s assuming the privileges of a male disciple is a good thing. He is saying that it is all right for women to take their places in the councils usually reserved to men. He is, in a deep sense, validating Thecla’s decision to get a haircut. The Jesus movement will not be beholden to cultural norms or stereotypes. Inside the circle that gathers around Jesus, the roles our culture assigns to men and women no longer matter. The Jesus community insists on the radical equality of all people before God.
In this morning’s reading from his letter to the Colossians, Paul gets at the egalitarian implications of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Christ event has erased all human distinctions. As he says, “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him.” [Colossians 1.2—22] Therefore, Paul is announcing what he calls “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.” [Colossians 1.26] And the center of this mystery concerns the way God has called a community together called the church that assigns Jews and Gentiles absolute equality with each other. In the ancient world’s terms, such a community was unimaginable. The Roman world lived and died by hard fixed categories: Roman/Greek, slave/free, male/female. Those categories were seen as part of the fabric of reality itself. But now reality seemed to be changing. God was calling together a body whose members left their categories at the door. So the existence of the church is itself a sign of the new thing that God is doing. If God can erase the boundary between Gentile and Jew, God can do anything.
I have never heard a sermon on this Gospel story of Mary and Martha that didn’t make somebody mad. The old version of the “Mary and Martha” sermon was infuriating because it seemed to make Jesus say that people who work hard aren’t as spiritual as those who sit back and relax. It’s clear, at least to me, that Jesus is not saying that. But what he is saying—about the radical equality of all people before God—can be equally infuriating, especially if you’ve grown up in a culture where you assumed that some kinds of people were made to work in the kitchen and others to sit at the Master’s feet.
The longer I live and work and pray in the church, the longer it seems to me that the deeply egalitarian thing that Thecla and Paul were on to was the sign that they got what Jesus was talking about. If you enjoy certain advantages bestowed by your culture, it is at first challenging to hear that people unlike you in their external markers might also be called to share your status. Jesus did not come to reinforce our cultural habits. Instead, he proclaims the reign of God as a creative alternative to “the way we’ve always done it”. Because the way we’ve always done it usually deems somebody a winner and somebody else a loser. But the church, says Paul, doesn’t work that way. It’s a community where people can explore their gifts and exercise their ministries regardless of where they fit in the world’s social hierarchy. One of the first Popes [Callistus I] was a household slave.
Human categories, as important as they are to us, finally mean much more to us than they do to God. Accustomed as we are to describing ourselves in certain categorical ways, we are always surprised to learn that, when God looks at us, we are seen not according to what social, ethnic, or other category we fall into but in the light of the divine image which each of us uniquely reflects. Mary and Thecla dared to see themselves as beloved human beings made in the image of God and bearing the image of Christ. And seeing themselves that way they offered themselves to God and the world. It was their self-offering, not their category, that finally mattered. And that’s why we remember and honor them to this day.
It was Mary’s shrewd critique of Palestinian Jewish culture to take her place with the men, where the teaching was going on. It was Thecla’s apostolic insight that she needed to cut her hair so she could exercise her own God-given authority. As we gather this morning to give thanks at God’s table, let us celebrate the life and ministry and of Thecla, of Mary before her, and of the countless Theclas and Marys who have striven to live out their response to Jesus in the way that fits them best. And let’s celebrate the Marthas—those who find their authentic existence living within the confines of established roles. The good news that Mary and Martha and Thecla bring us this morning is that God sees and knows us as we are. Regardless of how others would define you, when God looks at you all those other status markers mean nothing at all. You are free to live your life in ways that may puzzle the world or may even surprise yourself. In spite of what their culture told them, Mary dared to sit at Jesus’s feet and Thecla dared to preach the Gospel. They refused to let their cultural roles or family expectations define them. Male or female, what might their witness mean for you? How might you be set free from roles and expectations not authentic to who you actually are?
It is o.k. to be who God has made and called you to be—even if being that surprises and shocks the world. It is o.k. to be a woman with authority, a man who does the household chores. Surprising as it may sound to English men, it is even o.k. to be an English woman bishop. Thecla and Mary have shown us how God calls us to live our lives beyond categories. Let us pray and work for the courage to live into the equality and freedom of that blessing. Amen.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Homily: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost [July 11, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

At a church meeting I attended last month I heard Bishop Mark Beckwith of Newark tell the story of a bicycle accident he suffered in April. Bishop Beckwith was rear-ended and thrown from his bicycle by a driver on a Saturday morning ride, and though he was profoundly shaken up he decided to go ahead with that morning’s Confirmation liturgy at the Newark Cathedral. As the service proceeded it became increasingly clear to everybody (including him) that he was in shock, so much so that they finally called the paramedics who carried him from the church during the closing hymn. Ever the bishop, Mark continued to bless the people, making the sign of the cross as he was borne forth from the church by EMS workers on a stretcher.
I tell this story because it helps orient us to the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan told by Jesus in this morning’s Gospel. A man lies nearly dead in the road. Three people pass by: a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. Only the Samaritan stops and takes care of the man lying in the road. The priest and the Levite are both Jewish religious functionaries. The Samaritan is a member of an ethnic group looked down on by traditional Jews. Part of Jesus’s point in this story, of course, is that the right thing is done not by the insiders but rather by someone “insiders” would define as an outsider.
When we hear this story, though, it is always easy to identify with one of the presumed insiders, perhaps less easy to identify with the Samaritan outsider. But with whom do you think Jesus actually wants you to identify in this story? I think it is with the unnamed person lying half dead in the road. Of course, it burnishes my self-image to see myself as an able-bodied, if callous, passerby. But it is probably closer to the truth of the situation to see myself as one deeply in need of assistance.
Like my friend Bishop Beckwith, you and I often don’t realize when we’re in trouble and when we need help. We get through life by claiming agency and power, seeing ourselves in control of our own destinies. This attitude serves us much of the time, but when surprising, unexpected things overtake us we often fail to recognize our own need. Who are you in this parable—the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan, or the person lying in the road? To the good religious people in the story—the priest and the Levite—the one in the road might be dead, and so ritually unclean. They see that person as “other”, and so are willing, indeed eager, to pass him by. The Samaritan does not see the man in the road in those religious terms and so is more able to see himself in him. The Samaritan can be a “good Samaritan” because he is willing to risk seeing the man in the road as potentially himself. The religious code of the priest and the Levite gives them a warrant to objectify the nearly dead person and so do nothing on his behalf. The Samaritan is not burdened by that religious code, and so he can feel with and act for the person in trouble. Doing the right thing only happens when we see what we have in common with another.
Our collect for today expresses our situation before God and each other in starkly simple and compelling terms. It asks God to grant that we “may know and understand what things [we] ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them”. We might translate that lofty Prayer Book language this way: Help me, God, to know what I ought to do. And help me, God, to do it. The problem with the priest and the Levite in Jesus’s story is that they know neither what they should do nor how to do it. They don’t even see the man lying in the road as a problem. So if they do not know what they should do, how can they possibly have the grace and power to do it? Our prayer today guides us to thinking both about knowing the right thing and doing the right thing. I think our scriptures give us some insight here.
This morning we begin a several week journey through Paul’s letter to the Colossians. In today’s reading, Paul says this:

[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. [Colossians 1.13-14]

When I worked in Pasadena, All Saints Church decided to do a direct-mail campaign to all the households in a ten-mile radius of the church. At a staff meeting the rector solicited ideas for an attention-getting headline. Now these were the days when you would get that Publisher’s Clearing House envelope in your mailbox with the banner headline, “You May Already Be A Winner!” emblazoned on it. I suggested that our direct mail envelope display in large letters the slogan, “You May Already Be Saved!”
Then as now my brilliant suggestions sounded a bit too edgy for the church, so we opted for something far less original and compelling. But that proposed slogan stuck with me because it gets to the heart of what Paul is saying in Colossians: Here is his language: “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. “ Here is my language: you may already be saved. In fact, Paul and I believe you are. Both versions pose this next question: What are you going to do about it?
Like the priest and the Levite in this morning’s Gospel, most of us spend most of the time we give to religious speculation worrying about the state of our souls. The reason Jesus is so critical of the Law is that it misleads people into thinking that they are supposed to try to know and do the right thing in order to be all right with God. But the point of Jesus’s teaching, as is the point of today’s reading from Colossians, is that you are all right with God already.
“God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Religious systems and institutions—even and especially the church—persistently misunderstand and misapply the fundamental message of the Gospel. The Good News is that you are already a winner, you are already saved. So our biggest question ought not to be, “How do I get right with God,” but rather, “Now that I am right with God, how do I get right with the rest of creation?”
The priest and the Levite, the “good religious people”, in today’s Gospel are so worried about getting right with God that they fail to notice the human tragedy in front of them. The Samaritan, the one unburdened by that worry, is free actually to respond in love and compassion to someone in great need. It is only because of his ability to see himself beloved of God that the Samaritan can also risk seeing himself lying half dead in the road. And only when you risk seeing yourself that way can you actually reach out and do something for someone else.
This is the essential doubleness of Christianity, without an appreciation for which one can never quite grasp the fullness and depth of the Gospel. We are, like the man in Jesus’s story, like someone lying half dead in the road. We are small, powerless, at the mercy of forces bigger than we are. At the same time, we are, in Paul’s words, those who “share in the inheritance of the saints in the light”. Because we like to think of ourselves as powerful, competent people, we resist self-identifying as those in need of help. But only as we open ourselves to the truth of our situation does another, deeper reality emerge: we do not have to pretend be in control of our destinies because we are already in the embrace of a God who is. We are both powerless and redeemed at the same time. We live lives of love and compassion not to earn something but because the grace we have compels us to do so.
In the words of today’s collect, how do we know what is right? And once we know it, how do we find grace and power to do it? Like my bike-riding bishop friend, all too often we fail to acknowledge the reality of our situation. All of us need help. All of us depend on others. It’s only when we see and say that that we become open to the grace and power of what it means to share in “the inheritance of the saints in light.”
We will only be open to the depth and power of the Gospel when we acknowledge both sides of our situation. We are fragile, finite men and women in need of help from somewhere outside ourselves. And we are those who already stand in the kingdom of God’s beloved son and share in the inheritance of the saints in light. Both things are true about us at the same time. And it’s part of the divine paradox we stand in that you can’t experience the glory of God’s holiness until you acknowledge the depth of your own need.
You may already be a winner. You are already saved. As you know yourself both to need help and to have received it, you will be set free and empowered to be an agent of help and blessing to others. It is all right to ask for help, to acknowledge your limitations, your weakness, your pain, your loss. The universe does not require your leadership in order to function correctly. But it does require your compassionate heart to feel with those who lie half dead in the road. Only those who know themselves both to be fragile and to be loved can see the need in others and respond as the Samaritan did.
“This is a great mystery” [Ephesians 5.32] as Paul says elsewhere. This profound doubleness, this ambiguity, this dual truth about us is always more than we can take in mentally. We get it not by thinking about it but by living into it. And we can only live into it because of the profound and myriad ways in which we each have been supported and nourished by God in the guise of Samaritans who have picked us up when we were lying half dead in the road. Amen.