Friday, January 30, 2009

A Resident Alien in the Land

In previous posts I've mentioned the need for hospitality in the church. But what about the rest of life? 

Twice a week I volunteer at a local youth organization. It's been quite a few months of showing up and trying to talk with teenagers who have their own world. I'm not athletic, so playing soccer or basketball's not the way to enter the community. They're either done with their homework or don't care about it, so trying to help them with that's a hard sell. Talking with them and attempting to play pool? I can do that. 

In the months I've been going down there, I've learned how slowly I've become part of the life there. Sure, I'm not the most popular person there, or the most respected, but I have my place. While they may not remember my name, they do remember who I am. 

A few weeks ago, I accosted some teenagers on the stairs who kept using a vile, derogatory term for gays. I told them not to use that word, to which they replied, "Ok, fine." Once I was all the way down the stairs, they belted it out, just to attempt to show me how "bad" and macho they were. 

Now, I never had much experience as the target of that word. No one in my high school used it, none of my friends used it, no one around me really used it. Even so, that word provokes a gut reaction in me, and that's fear. That 'f' word carries with it a subtle threat of violence, and it reminds me that there are some who wish or even intend to do me and other gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people harm. Even as an adult who was never directly threatened as a teenager, that word brings up a lot of fear and pain.

One of the teenagers on staff noticed the pained look in my eye and asked me what had happened. I told him, and he accosted them and told them to leave. The teen center director also heard about it and told them to leave. 

Now, the first reaction I have is still a bit of fear: am I now the whiny volunteer? The previous teen center director tried to get them to stop using the word 'gay' as a synonym for stupid to some success, but he was respected and beloved. 

Just this past Wednesday I went down there again, and later in the day another teen started using that horrible word. I told him to stop it, explaining to him exactly why it was so violent a word, but he refused to stop. Another teenager saw me and asked me what happened, so I told him. This teenager brought us both to the teen center director, and the director told the teenager using that word to leave. 

If I had that fear before, now it was even more! I was going to be the volunteer who got on people's cases about the 'gay' thing. And now they were going to suspect that I was one of those gay people (if the cardigans hadn't tipped them off). The word was powerful because it was a threat against me just as much as it was a threat against any LGBT teen within earshot. 

The teenager who brought us to the director then apologized for what happened. He told me that he understood why that word was so hurtful and hateful; his twin brother is bisexual, so that word is a threat against his brother. Hearing this teenager tell me how much it angered him to hear people act tough like that by using hurtful language. 

Hearing all this, I realized I was part of the community; people were concerned about my well-being. I'm not as much a stranger as, say, a "resident alien." I'm not a teenager, not a staff member, not a fixture in the community, but I am part of the community. They have all been hospitable to me in slowly inviting me into the group. They'd humor my bad jokes, my awesome and nerdy wardrobe. 

It brings into light the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Now, that story's not about "how gays are evil," but inhospitality. Lot defended his guests from the attacks of the people of Sodom, and Sodom was punished for trying to violate and degrade others. Its grave sin was hurting the 'other,' the stranger in the land. 

The community leaders at the teen center have, then, invited me into their house as a guest and as a friend. They took steps to help me in a time of need and to defend me from powerful yet hurtful words. The fullness of their hospitality has slowly come into being; I'm no longer a stranger but a "resident alien" in the land. 

In what ways, then, are we recipients of hospitality? How are we strangers or resident aliens? How far does hospitality go? Would we tell someone in our community to stop it if their abusive words hurt the stranger or alien in our group/church? 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Fear of Public Speaking

(Here is the sermonette I delivered today. Well, it's a text written from my notes and from my memory of what I said. I don't write them all out, and I don't have a recording to tell me what I actually did say. So it's a hybrid thing.)

In lists of Americans’ fears, public speaking beats out even death. There’s always the fear of great embarrassment. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I speak too quickly or too slowly? Or what if there’s a bit of spinach in my teeth? There’s the worry that death will be the only remedy from the public embarrassment from a bad speech.

And the clergy speak week after week, and they speak about things important, things holy. The burden’s greater; they somehow must preach the Gospel in a way that it finds meaning and a location in our lives. Some have the gift of eloquence to help them in this sacred task.

Today I stand trying to do the same thing, and on the feast of St. John Chrysostom, no less, and I have not had classes of homiletics and years of seminary education! Now there’s pressure: preaching on the feast day of a guy who’s name means “Golden mouthed” because he was so renowned and beloved a preacher. Eloquence is a gift that so few have, and so few can stand ready to preach the Gospel!

Without this ready gift of beautiful speech, how can we rise to the task of proclaiming the Gospel in our own day? What do we do when called upon to defend the Gospel from those who would decry it as a political tool of fear and hate? What do we do in that critical moment when someone near us is hurting and needs to hear the healing words of the Gospel? What do we do in that critical moment when the gospel and Christ need to be heard and understood today?

Like Jeremiah, we can’t just say, “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” We may not have the classes of homiletics or years of seminary to prepare us, but we have no excuse in those critical moments; we have to be the presence of Christ to a world in need. We can’t wait for someone else with better training to come along; we’re it! We may be ill-prepared and afraid, but by our baptism we are called to do such work, to proclaim the Gospel of healing to a world in need of healing.

We may want to turn to God and say, “Choose someone else, God, but not me. I’m not smart enough, and I can’t speak very well.” Just like Moses, we may beg and plead with God to send someone else. And in Moses’ case, God did send someone else to speak, Moses’ brother, Aaron. But God also gave Moses a staff with which to give signs and wonders to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. He gave Moses the staff which turned into a snake and back again, the staff which turned waters into blood and called down the plagues upon Egypt. Aaron may have spoken the words, but the deeds were from Moses.

And so we as Christians are given signs and wonders and miracles to show the power of God, but instead of plagues we are given the power to bless and to heal. The wonders and miracles may seem ordinary, but they are miracles because God is with them. God is in our blessing and in our working for the poor and downtrodden and in our caring for one another. We may not have the Gospel pour forth from our lips but it pours forth from our hands as we work and love. It is seen in our loving, grace-filled acts, and that is our greatest preaching.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Eucharist observation

In a day that has been inordinately joyous, I witnessed something absolutely astounding at the altar rail today. 

Serving as a lay Eucharistic minister has always been a delight to me; that chalice filled with wine really is the Blood of Christ, and giving it to all the people is, well, a numinous experience (what else would a religion major say?). 

But standing at the altar rail, handing the chalice to communicants, I watched a woman with her baby dip the host into the chalice and bring it to her lips. At first I wouldn't have thought of it much except that I heard the distinct sound of that crack hosts tend to make when broken. That I could hear it meant that she took a bite out of it like a cracker. 

I'll admit, the first reaction I had was "that's not just a cracker! It's the Body of God!" but then I noticed her take the tiniest morsel of the host and give it to her infant. 

Seeing that, it was all I could do not to cry for joy. To see a mother care so much for her child that she would share her "portion" of Christ was unbelievable. She was giving to her child the body and blood given her in the hopes that it would nourish her child's soul. 

How many people would think to share "their" share of the body and blood? To know that God is just as present in the tiniest piece of the host and wine as in the giant priest's host? 

And just like how a mother nourishes her child with her own body through her womb, her milk and her loving embrace, God nourishes us with his own body (note the play on gender here!). 

And even when we're not biological parents, how are we sharing God's body and blood with the youth in our world, seeing that they obtain the greatest nourishment of all: God's gift of Godself to us. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

The power of Lay People

On Tuesday I was blessed with meeting two very powerful lay people here in Omaha. 

One was a parishioner a deacon and I were visiting. The deacon had told me that this parishioner was quite the pray-er, and so I watched for her to pray over our deacon in response to our deacon's prayers over her. I was astounded by the golden words that poured out of her mouth! She prayed that the deacon and I might be see God freshly and be renewed. I can't sum up her prayers, but suffice to say that her words were definitely the words of the Spirit. She definitely has the gift of prayer!

The second was a very learned lay person who work for the church. We had dinner together, and we talked about all sorts of things in the church. She reminded me that she knew she was called to be a lay person. Not something we think about much; God calls us to all sorts of places, but we assume that call is only about ordination. God calls some to monastic life, some to medicine, some to being a diesel mechanic. I'm so glad to see a powerful and committed lay person! 

All of this has slowly worked to disabuse me of any 'high' notion of the clergy. Kind of like the tribe of Levi, they get a handful of gifts and compensation (the authority to absolve, preside at Eucharist and the like) but give up a lot, too. The ministry of the laity is so broad and powerful, and the ministry of the clergy is so narrow. 

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Blackbird of Bitter Cynicism?

We've all heard of the bluebird of happiness, but is there a blackbird of cynicism? A few of my friends seem to believe so, and they believe that I am that blackbird!

Now, most people know that I'm not the biggest fan of romantic films. My parents always told me that they weren't looking for love when they found each other. They were friends first, and they both were surprised when the love came into being. They didn't see each other across the room or bump into each other and just magically and randomly fall in love like they were soulmates destined for each other; their friendship took a lot of work, and it slowly grew into the loving marriage they have today. 

Now, last night a group of friends and I were watching a romantic comedy. It was the story of two women who traded houses for a vacation away from the men and heartache of their lives. The one from the US fell in lust with an Englishman, while the UK gal found friends in an aging movie writer and a young movie composer. The UK gal fell in love with the composer, of course, but there was something different about how she came into love. She came into friendship first. She was friends with the aging movie writer and the composer, and when the romance came into being it was not because they burned with passion for one another but because they both cared deeply for the writer. 

I just finished reading a book on sexuality and the Trinity, and one of the points made was that love happens in three, not two: the Father and the Son need their love to be witnessed by the Spirit. The third party is not a third wheel but is part of the celebration and sanctification of love. 

My sermon for tomorrow on St. Aelred of Rievaulx draws heavily on that. Marriage is a sacrament not because it brings us to fulfillment (which marriage may or may not do) but because it shows us the deep, committed love that is possible in human life (and, by extension, the love possible in the life of God and humanity). The witnesses of that love (the church) are not extraneous to marriage but intimately tied up in it. The Eucharist is not the priest letting those laypeople watch as bread and wine become body and blood-the laypeople are part of the Eucharist. Baptism isn't just the sprinking of water over someone- in the church context, it is witnessed and celebrated by the whole church. 

Why this treatise on marriage and love? Is it just a defense of my criticism of romantic movies? Well, sort of, but this all goes to show that I'm not bitter and cynical about love. Love is celebrated in friendships with others. Romantic love is not two sets of eyes meeting across a crowded room but rather a specially consecrated friendship which builds up both partners and also builds up the world around them. 

I'm not bitter and cynical even though I dislike romantic movies. I love romance which is the fruit of friendship.