I want to begin by saying both how pleased I am to be here today and just how old this occasion makes me feel. Not only did I know your rector when he was a first year seminarian. I knew your bishop even before he went to seminary. There are some wonderful blessings inherent in a long career in the ministry, but some days I feel like I'm about 106 years old.
And then there's the anomaly of Matthew Butterbaugh being installed as the 25th rector of St. Matthew's. I was the seventh rector of Christ Church Cranbrook, the ninth dean of Seabury-Western, and now I'm the tenth dean of Washington National Cathedral. 25 rectors in Kenosha? You people don't look that mean to me. Since moving to Washington, Kathy and I have come to know and love Mary Garner, the widow of Sanford Garner, a much earlier rector here, and she says you're all lovely people. But 25 rectors? Really? There has to be a story there.
It's probably just as well. In the Episcopal Church we seem to have a prurience for authority. The great Ralph Waldo Emerson said that an institution is “the lengthened shadow of one man" [“Self-Reliance”]. True enough, but Emerson was a self-reliant individualistic Transcendentalist. For us Christians, the church is about community. Indeed, in today's reading from Romans, Paul describes the church as the body of Christ. He means that literally. We are all of us interconnected and part of each other, belonging to something bigger than ourselves. Yet when we talk about parish churches we seem to confuse the rector with the community itself. And here in Kenosha, it doesn't help that your patron saint and your rector now have the same name.
Listen again to Paul:
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. [Romans 12: 4-5]
As we hear Paul tell us that we are "members one of another", we need to begin our reflection on this new stage in the ministry of St. Matthew's Church with an admission that today is not primarily about the installation of one--admittedly gifted, energetic, and faithful--man. Today is primarily about the ministry of this body in which all of us are members. If you have any doubts about that, think back on our first reading, from Numbers. We didn't hear the part that comes right before the start of that passage, when Moses complains to God in a tone that makes him sound like a kindergartner in need of a nap. He's led the people out of Egypt. They're in the middle of their 40-year sojourn in the desert. Half of the Israelites want to give up and go back to slavery. Moses asks Yahweh for help. And Yahweh takes some of Moses's spirit and puts it on the 70 elders. The point: leadership in the church is not a solo sport. It is a team endeavor. It’s not just individuals who are leaders. Communities can be leaders, too.
So how can this community, how can all of you, lead and serve in the spirit of Moses and the 70 elders? I would begin with the simple thought that self-knowledge is the key to everything. Moses knew himself well enough to see that he needed help. He was secure enough in his identity to ask for it. In Baptism, you and I have been given both a ministry and an identity. Knowing who you are, and knowing that who you are is loved by God and good, is the best place to start. God made each of us unique in God's image. Each of us brings something precious and unrepeatable to the world. If the church is to be a living incarnation of God's mission, then it needs the fullness of everyone's call--not just the rector's--as it enacts that mission in the world. The church doesn’t just need Matthew Butterbaugh to be a great and interesting guy. The church needs all of you to be fully who you are so it can be fully who it is in the world.
In today's reading from Romans, Paul reminds us that God’s Spirit lives in and through us in equal but asymmetrical ways. The Spirit at work in the community is given to everyone, but it is apportioned differently:
We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. [Romans 12:6-8]
In today’s world, knowing who you are and what you can do is no mean achievement. We are all bombarded by thousands of daily messages claiming our attention, and we inhabit a society that commodifies everything we do, urging us take things produced by others into ourselves rather than give voice to the intuitions that come from within. A baptismal vision of the church is radically critical of that consumerist vision of society. It suggests that who you are, what you think, how you feel, what you know about yourself and God—all those intuitions and perceptions are valuable to the common enterprise. So as you begin this new phase of your shared ministry at St. Matthew’s with Father Matthew my prayer is that you strive to make this parish a place where people can bring all of who they are—their hopes, their fears, their sorrows, their joys—to God’s table so that they can be offered up and given to the world. We are all members one of another, and we each have unique and differing gifts. If St. Matthew’s Church—if any church—has a reason for being, it is to celebrate and share those gifts with each other and the world. The true sign of your success in living both corporately and from within is that both St. Matthew’s and Kenosha itself will be the better for your having done so.
And then there’s today's Gospel:
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. [Luke 10: 1-2]
When we hear this Gospel we are usually so overwhelmed with the news that the seventy appointed by Jesus carried no purse, bag, or sandals—“whoa, not me, Lord, I’m an executive-level Christian!”—that we tend not to hear the first part of the sentence. Listen to this: “he sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” Did you hear that? “He sent them on ahead of him.” If I hear this right, the Gospel takes the logic of the Numbers reading and carries it one step further. If you and I are the seventy—and I think we are—then it’s not just the case that we’re helping, as that first seventy did Moses. Rather, you and I have been sent on ahead of Jesus to every town and place where he intends to go. Translation: we’re not just helpers. We represent, we prepare the way for, Jesus and his vision of new, transformed, risen life. We are, individually and together, the body of Christ. We are God's enfleshments in the world. That news leads me to two final thoughts and charges I would give to both Matthew and St. Matthew’s as you celebrate your new ministry together.
Charge One: together, you and I together in the church represent Jesus. That means that God has tied up God’s reputation in us. It is vital that the church live with integrity and compassion and urgency because when people look at us they see Jesus, and what they think of Jesus will largely be a product of what they think of us. So the first Gospel charge I hear this afternoon is this: serve each other and the wider community in such a way that when people look at you they will see Jesus. Serve them in such a way that the Jesus they see is the Jesus you know and love and want them to know and love, too.
Charge Two: we all have been sent ahead to prepare the way for Jesus. Our mission is not about us. Our mission is about Jesus and his quest to love, embrace, forgive, bless, and transform the world. You have been given a variety of gifts but the same Spirit. You are called, together, to use those gifts not for the glorification of this parish or its rector but for the glorification of God.
It is God’s mission you and I and your bishop and your rector are about together, and just as it was not all on Moses shoulders to get it right, so it is not all on yours. The good news we all celebrate together this afternoon is this: for some reason none of us can fathom, God has chosen the fragile likes of you and me as the instruments for the healing and transformation of the world. Let us bring all of who we are to that mission. Let us live it with compassion and integrity. And let us give thanks that, when all is said and done, God’s life and justice and blessing and hope will prevail. Amen.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
Sunday, October 6, 2013
Fifteen years ago this month, Matthew Shepard was killed in Laramie, Wyoming. Three years ago last month, Tyler Clementi committed suicide in New York City. Matthew was 21 when he died, Tyler 18. Both young men were gay. We here at the cathedral are taking this weekend both to remember and honor Matthew and Tyler and to commit ourselves to standing with and for LGBT youth.
In preparation for our conversations both Friday night and this morning, I reread Moises Kaufman’s play, The Laramie Project, an innovative theater piece created and produced by the Tectonic Theater Project as a response to Matthew Shepard’s death. Through a series of conversations with the participants, the play sometimes graphically represents the events of October, 1998. As I reread The Laramie Project I was moved and shocked all over again, but this time I was particularly taken by the remarks of a catholic priest, Father Roger Schmidt, who talks about his participation in a vigil held in Laramie for Matthew. When he was interviewed about his participation in the vigil, Father Schmidt said this:
And I’m not gonna sit here and say, “I was just this bold guy—no fear.” I was scared. I was very vocal in this community when this happened—and I thought, “You know, should we, uh, should we call the bishop and ask him permission to do the vigil?” And I was like, “Hell, no, I’m not going to do that.” His permission doesn’t make it correct, you realize that? And I’m not knocking bishops, but what is correct is correct. [The Laramie Project, p. 65]
And then he goes on to say this:
You think violence is what they did to Matthew—they did do violence to Matthew—but you know, every time that you are called [and here he uses a couple of homophobic epithets I’d rather not repeat in the pulpit] . . .Do you realize that is violence. That is the seed of violence. [p. 66]
That’s Father Schmidt, a Roman Catholic priest, speaking in 1998, not in the new, open days of Pope Francis but in the old, authoritarian days of John Paul. So think about the courage of those words in their own context. As a person of faith, he responded to a violent hate crime committed against a young man viscerally and from the heart. He knew what was right, and he did it.
A lot has changed socially and culturally in the last 15 years in America with regard to attitudes toward sexual orientation and gender identity. But still, as far as young people are concerned, the distance between Laramie, Rutgers, and the rest of the country is not as far as we might think. Every day, all across America, countless unnamed boys and girls suffer indignity, humiliation, bullying, and violence, and they feel that they are in it all alone. And I’m sorry to say that much of the blame belongs to our churches, which give religious cover to the last cultural prejudice that we allow to persist in our society: the stigmatization of a person because of sexual orientation or gender identity. And that cultural prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered people persists even in a time when every third television show features a gay protagonist or next-door neighbor. That prejudice persists because Christian churches continue to promote it.
Today’s Gospel begins with a very strange request to Jesus by his companions: “Increase our faith!” they demand. Step back from that question and think about it. More faith: isn’t that a weird thing to ask for?
But as odd as the “increase our faith” question is, Jesus’ reply is even stranger: "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.” [Luke 17: 6] Have you ever seen a mustard seed? A mustard seed is really tiny. It makes a poppy seed look like a watermelon. Jesus responds to his companions by means of a startling comparison. If you had even an atom of faith you could work miracles. “You don’t need more faith,” he seems to be saying. “You just need some faith. Right now you don’t seem to have any faith at all.”
Now let’s go back to Father Schmidt’s words and think about them in the context of this faith and mustard seed interchange. There were other Christian clergy in Laramie who didn’t stand up for Matthew Shepard. They didn’t want publicly to commit themselves to standing up for a gay young man, and they most likely were Christians of the “Increase our faith!” persuasion. “I’d stand with Matt if I had more faith.” In contrast to conflict-avoidant Christianity, Father Schmidt seems to understand what Jesus is talking about this morning. “I’m not gonna sit here and say, ‘I was just this bold guy—no fear.’ I was scared.” He didn’t wait until he was fearless to act. He acted and found that he didn’t have to be ruled by his fear.
I don’t know what I would have done or said in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998 or in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 2010, but I hope I would have had the courage of Father Schmidt. I do know what today’s Gospel calls me (and I believe you) to be doing and saying this morning. It’s tragic that we still live in a nation and in a world where the last socially acceptable prejudice is against LGBT people. It’s tragic that we still live in a nation and a world where LGBT youth are vulnerable because of that prejudice and the way it combines with the other stresses of adolescence and young adulthood. But it’s more than tragic—in fact it’s shameful--that faith communities, especially Christian ones, continue to be complicit in putting our children at risk and abetting the attitudes that oppress them, thereby encouraging the aggressors who would subject our children to pain, humiliation, and violence.
I’m old enough to remember a time when Christian churches, including our own Episcopal Church, segregated its churches and actively participated in racism. I’m old enough to remember the ordination of women movement, when many in our church found ingenious theological arguments to deny women leadership roles and so promoted sexism. In its wisdom, the church came to its senses and labeled both racism and sexism as sinful. And now we find ourselves at the last barrier—call that barrier homophobia, call it heterosexism. We must now have the courage to take the final step and call homophobia and heterosexism what they are. They are sin. Homophobia is a sin. Heterosexism is a sin. Shaming people for whom they love is a sin. Shaming people because their gender identity doesn’t fit neatly into your sense of what it should be is a sin. Only when all our churches say that clearly and boldly and courageously will our LGBT youth be free to grow up in a culture that totally embraces them fully as they are.
Those of us who gather around this table this morning believe that God has done a new thing in Jesus and is continuing that new thing in us. God is breaking down categories and barriers between people and creating a new humanity in which all the particularities of how we identify ourselves—racial, ethnic, gender, class—are accepted and blessed as they contribute to the expanding wonder and diversity of a human race created in God’s image. The new humanity that gathers with Jesus at his table come together as we are, secure in the knowledge that it is good and right to be who we are and to celebrate our identity in its myriad fullness. It is not only just OK to be gay, straight, bisexual, or transgendered. It is good to be that way, because that is the way God has made you. And the Christian community, the world community, needs you to bring the totality of your being—including and maybe especially your sexual and gender identity—to the table.
Young LGBT men and young women will continue to be vulnerable to the sins of homophobia and heterosexism, to the violence of hate and fear until we in the church can say to homosexuals now what it has said to heterosexuals for 2,000 years. Your sexuality is good. The church not only accepts it. The church celebrates it and rejoices in it. God loves you as you are, and the church can do no less.
Only when we find a way fearlessly to speak just that clearly and boldly to LGBT kids, their families, their schools, and their communities, will the world be a safe and nurturing place for the Matthew Shepards and Tyler Clementis of our own day. We don’t need more faith. We just need some faith—faith in a God who is bigger and deeper and more loving and compassionate than we are. It really is OK for you and me to be who we are. Our job, as Christians, is not only to proclaim that Gospel. Our job is to live it. And if we are faithful in proclaiming and living it, today’s generation of LGBT youth will thrive and grow and take their places around this table, with Jesus, as we bless, forgive, heal, and love the world. Amen.