Monday, January 28, 2013

How Shall We Sing the Lord's Song Upon an Alien Soil?

For the closing of the January class we were tasked with writing a reflection paper that integrated Scripture and our experienced with the course material and visitations.

Along the road the connection between the immigrant experience of leaving their homeland and the experience of exile in Scripture was made in my head, and the Psalm with the most cruel and brutal of language popped into my head: Psalm 137.

Here is a link to the text: (by the way, is a fantastic resource for Scripture and liturgy!).

The anguish and anger in that Psalm encapsulates the exile experience. Ripped from one's homeland and taken to another, the exile becomes an alien on foreign soil.

The immigrant experience has some similar elements. What drives an immigrant to leave the homeland? What forces at play push this person or family to leave what is familiar for a foreign place?

Political persecution. Economic collapse. Oppression. Starvation. Opportunities denied at home.

There is something missing, something lacking in the homeland to push someone to leave behind what they know and seek something new. Even if it's a general feeling of "I don't belong here," the lack of a sense of belonging is pushing them out.

Idaho gives me the same feelings of being pushed out at times. It's hard not being of a particular conservative stripe (let along being a liberal!), not being of a handful of religious traditions, not being straight. It's made me capable of living as a minority. Being a minority can be powerful; I can be free to say what I'm thinking because those in power aren't going to share or listen. Being a minority can be disheartening in its limitations; those in power aren't going to share or listen.

Growing up in Idaho I always knew that my fate was going to lead me out of the state. I was not going to be satisfied staying there. I never developed pride in my state as a collective entity. I love its geography, of course. Mesa Falls and Craters of the Moon are extraordinarily beautiful, and looking up at Taylor Mountain in the mornings filled me with joy! But the entity of "Idaho" and "Idaho-ness" do not hold the same appeal for me.

Here in Texas, it astounds me how much people take pride in their state. They take pride in being Texan and having grown up here or moving here. They are living in their homeland.

Who doesn't want to have a place where they belong and feel at home? Other than in the Kingdom of God, what else can I proudly call my homeland?

Remembering that people around the world still desire that Heavenly Country where all are welcome and all are loved, let us pray for exiles and refugees, for immigrants and travelers, for the lonely and hungry. May God's Kingdom come soon! Amen.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Sent out as Wolves among Sheep

This following sermon was written and delivered today as part of the Eucharist at the conclusion of the seminary's January "Encuentro" course on Latinos, Latino culture and history, and intercultural ministry. The work referenced is Eric Law's "The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb."

Joseph Farnes
Sermon for the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul (End of January Encuentro)
Seminary of the Southwest
January 25, 2013
Acts 26:9-21
Matthew 10:16-22
Psalm 67
“Sent Out As Wolves Among Sheep”
            In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Today we have come to the end of our January Encuentro. A journey that started on what was to some a chilly Tuesday morning with Brother Dahlman’s reflections on waving like a madman to Queen Elizabeth, a journey that is now drawing to a close on this feast of the Conversion of St Paul, a Jew who was sent out and who converted Gentiles.
            For me, this January Encuentro has resulted in more questions than answers. Has it been that way for you?  The more we have learned, the more I see a complicated and interwoven human reality and am faced with the sobering reality that mission is more multifaceted than before.
            The stated goal for Encuentro is to learn about the culture and history of Latinos and to understand the present. Mission and outreach become a little more complicated when remembering the mixed history of the Spanish missions and presidios. Looking back on a history of injustice makes the tongue pause when it tries to preach justice and the Gospel. There is pain in the present due to injustices in the past. Truth-telling is painful.
             Yet as we have also discussed in class, there is pain in being frozen in history. The sins and errors of our forebears can be a powerful summons to modern-day action, but guilt, shame, and self-loathing can destroy the very person who is called to act. Guilt and shame can paralyze even though God calls us to use our gifts and strengths as ministers in the world.
            In our studies we have encountered a tapestry of counter-stories to compare to the tapestries of stories each of us has brought to this place. We see new depictions of familiar stories and ideas and sometimes we become uncomfortable, as if we were witnessing fingers pulling and plucking thread after thread from our tapestry, leaving scars and empty spaces in the colors. In seeing our own stories deconstructed, our stories that make us proud to be who we are and give us nourishing roots and depth and color, it may seem that we, too, are being deconstructed. The story does not have perfect heroes and perfect villains, but human beings who devoured each other and human beings who were devoured.
            The devoured and the devourer. Wolves and sheep. Jesus and Eric Law both use this imagery to frame a duality of the powerful and the powerless. Jesus sends out the powerless among the powerful, and Eric Law cautions the powerful to face their own wolfish characteristics.
            Are we sheep, or are we wolves? What if I am a wolf, not a sheep, and what if I’m prepared to face wolves but find sheep instead?
            Even more questions came to mind as that image was drawn in my brain.
            Firstly, to bring up what Eric Law points out, how do we avoid hurting when we only mean to help? How does the wolf not rule over the sheep, even if it is meant to be a benevolent rule? Like the well-meaning but powerful giant in a children’s story, we might end up using our power wrongly and hurting the community we seek to help. We might silence other voices by our talking; we might insist on our own way and insist that our way is God’s way. Power is hard to wield well. So what do we do with our own power, our education, every privilege we’ve been given? How do we share without taking over?
            Secondly, where does the wolf get its food except by eating other animals? To say it another way, how do we as priests and future priests live except by the generosity of those we serve? A popular negative image of a pastor is the one who fleeces the flock, enjoying wealth and prestige by convincing the poor to give their hard-earned money in the hopes of an eternal future. Father Alejandro in Houston mentioned that in some Latin American countries the church charges for holy water while we give it away here. Are we seeking to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God and God the Son, or are we seeking to keep the parish doors open and the pledges up? Or both? Are we afraid of scarcity in the pews or are we overjoyed at the outpouring of God’s love? Father Alejandro talked about the practical, financial issues of building up his Hispanic congregation. You have cultural differences about giving to the church, and you have annual reports for the diocese that wants to know numbers. Pledging units, average Sunday attendance, budget figures! What drives us to share in the work of reconciliation?
            Finally, what does a sheep need from a wolf? Does the sheep need the expert hunting skills of the wolf or need to learn how to participate in wolf pack politics? Sounds crazy, but are we teaching others about how to be more like us or how to be more like Christ? In a world that loves measuring by tangible things, how do we measure whether we are doing what is good and right? And what do we do with our neighbors and friends who find no need of our spirituality or even our relationship with God? Do we convince them that there is an unseen, gaping hole in their lives that only God can fill? How do we reach out to those who are different from us and care for them as they are yet still witness to Jesus Christ?
            Yes, that was a list of questions. I hope you might have answers for them because I don’t, and the Episcopal Church and the wider Church need those answers.
            Questions are good. A good question pokes at the limits of our knowledge. A good question guides us along and helps us seek truth; however, Jesus gave us a command.  Go out there, go proclaim the Gospel, persevere in the hope that the Holy Spirit will work in you and guide you along!
Christ sends us out. He didn’t command just the perfect ones to go out. He didn’t command only the ones who had the answers or who had the right program for parish growth. He sent out his apostles, and they had their own issues they were still working out. I am sure they still had questions about themselves, about what Jesus was asking them to do, and about how to do what Jesus was asking. Oddly enough, those are the same questions we are asking ourselves even today.
Jesus sent the apostles out, and he sends us out, too. The apostles didn’t get complete answers to their questions but they managed to muddle through it. We have to proclaim the Gospel. There is no choice in that. We may not have all the answers. We may not be perfect. We may not have what it takes, but Jesus is still sending us all out.
            When Paul was knocked off his horse, he asked one question: “Who are you, Lord?” And then he was sent out. No church manual on evangelism or a strategic vision for outreach – just his own, flawed, slightly privileged self.  In fact, I think Paul might have been a bit of a wolf, come to think of it. Educated, male, astute at navigating politics …
            Whether you are sheep or wolf or both, do what Jesus tells you to do. Go out there, go proclaim the Gospel, persevere in the hope that the Holy Spirit will work in you and guide you along!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

By the Light of the Phone in the Morning

(This was a meditation I drafted for an online publication that I decided not to send in)

Those first five minutes of the day command a lot of power over the rest of the day. When I wake up, the first thing my technology-focused brain will do is reach for my cell phone. My thumb flies to the email button, and my eye runs down the list of new mail with just a touch of anxiety.

Some of the new emails are good; I get a daily email from the Society of St John the Evangelist (an order of monks in the Episcopal Church) with a thoughtful meditation.

Some of the new emails are not-quite-so-good. Retailers are always present to encourage me to buy another thing I probably don’t need.

But my eye always scans for the unfamiliar email, the one I wasn’t planning on receiving. Why? It might just be good news from a friend! But it might be an email with bad news, with a reprimand for something I failed to do, or with some other text that might just start my day with a bit of anxiety.

That warm glow of my phone sure has a lot of impact in the morning. From bed to breakfast table, the light that seems to influence my day the most is not the Sun risen in the sky or the Son shining in my heart but rather the familiar glow of an ever-present phone.

Why does the phone have such power in the morning? Because for some hours I stepped away from our world and went to a world of dreams, leaving my deeds done and undone.

Each day might be a “fresh new day” in some ways, but it always contains the fruit of the days before. What I did yesterday will be reflected in what happens today, and that can be scary. I can never “start over” as if the day before never happened; what I said, what I did will continue on.

Instead of being cause for anxiety, though, that can be an invitation to honesty and truth. Honesty and truth with others, but, most of all, honesty and truth with myself.

Looking back, I can see what I did that has made me the person I am this morning and I can decide whether that is the person I want to be. I can be honest with myself in that warm glow of my phone.

Am I living out the values of love, honesty and generosity that God asks me to embody? Am I taking the risk in sharing myself with others and being open about who I am, what my needs are, and what flaws or difficulties I am struggling with in my journey to be the person God calls me to be? Am I loving God? Am I loving my neighbor, my friend, my enemy? Am I loving myself?

I am not perfect; my phone reminds me of that as it reminds me of my projects left undone and all the other ways I haven‘t lived up to my call of discipleship. Neither is the world perfect; my daily news alert reminds me of the turmoil and pain in the world.

But I can be honest. I can admit my mistakes, certainly, but I can also admit that I am a child of God. Me! A child of God! Me, a heavy-set gay man in his mid twenties, a child of God! Me, a guy who finally embraced my sexuality just eight years ago and embarked on a journey of  heartache, personal growth and much deeper love.

By becoming more and more honest with myself, all those parts come together more and more. The good, the not-so-good, the stuff-waiting-to-be-transformed. All wrapped up in an untidy package with a humble yet beautiful tag: A Child of God.

In those first five minutes, honesty can guide the rest of the day. One of the most startlingly true statements is that all are loved by God. It can be hard to believe that statement, but it is one of the truest statements that can be made.

If I may be so bold to be so direct, YOU are loved by God. YOU, the one reading this on the glow of a computer screen or the pale light of your phone in your hand. Loved as you are now, and  loved as you will yet become as you are led by God’s grace to even greater heights of joy and love.

Be honest, be yourself, be the Child of God that you are now and are called to be. It calls for just a little bravery and boldness, but smile at the face lit by the glow of this very screen, especially if it is the first five minutes of a new day.