Wednesday, July 30, 2014

My statement on the 4th Circuit US Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on marriage on July 28, 2014

I’m a priest, not a lawyer, so my perspective on what this ruling will mean for NC is concerned with the people, not the law. I am witnessing so much joy and hope from the LGBTQA community since news of the ruling hit yesterday. Neighbors who have been excluded from marriage because of their sexual orientation and who experience discrimination on a regular basis, now express renewed hope. Some of my LGBTQ friends are contacting me to begin discussions about getting married.

The Christian community is one of hope. Our purpose is to work to reconcile all to God and one another in Jesus Christ. Our journey began in the first century when Paul suggested Gentiles be welcomed into the church. Even Peter balked a that until God opened his heart and mind with a dream that made the early church an inclusive one. Fifty years ago, the Christian church struggled to welcome people of color. Today we are struggling to welcome people of differing sexual orientations. We’ve been here before and the love of God in Christ always shows us how to widen our tent posts and include the excluded who are also beloved of God.

I think this ruling will also cause many in the Christian community to grieve. I pray for kindness, grace, and respect toward all as we continue the journey this ruling begins for us in NC.

This ruling doesn’t make some winners and some losers. It simply prohibits one group of people from discriminating against another using the force of law. Churches and Christians who believe gay marriage is wrong will not be forced to marry gays. Churches and Christians who believe in marriage equality will soon no longer be inhibited from living out our beliefs and conferring this sacramental grace on all who seek it.

As an Episcopal priest, the marriage of anyone in my church is at my discretion. My decision on whether or not to marry a couple is made during a six-week course of pre-marital counseling. I take the sacramental rite of marriage very seriously. It is a sacred union which, as our Book of Common Prayer says, “signifies the mystical union between Christ and the church… and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people… Therefore, marriage should… be entered into…reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.” (p. 423) That purpose is the mutual joy of the couple and the building of a life together that bears the fruits of Christian love. My great joy is that this ruling by the 4th circuit court opens the way for marriage equality and I look forward to blessing relationships that reflect the covenant love of Christ for us – gay or straight.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Pentecost 7, 2014: It's always about redemption

Lectionary: Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Thomas Merton once said: “Prayer is… not just a formula of words, or a series of desires springing up in the heart – it is the orientation of our whole body, mind, and spirit to God in silence, attention, and adoration.” (Source: Thoughts In Solitude. Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc., 1993, 44.)

As many of you know, Pam and I have just returned from a 3-day silent retreat at the hermitages at Valle Crucis Conference Center. There are many benefits to a silent retreat, but one of the most important is the focused, intentional orientation of our whole selves to God. It is a way to set ourselves back on the path of righteousness, that is, right relationship with God. In a silent retreat, we commit to let go and let God connect with us, in whatever way God chooses: in nature, in prayer, in the silence.

One morning I sat on the front porch of the hermitage. I wasn’t writing in my prayer journal or reading my book. I wasn’t praying the morning office. I wasn’t doing anything. That isn’t as easy as it sounds. I find it very hard not to be doing something. I was clear, though, that at this moment God wanted me to just sit and be still. So I did.

Suddenly my eyes were opened to a great drama taking place right in front of me – in a tree – a beautiful, broad-limbed oak tree. I watched as the breeze blew the leaves in places so it looked like the tree was waving at me calling my gaze first to this part of the tree, then to that.

Then I noticed that there was a variety of birds flying in and out of the tree: cardinals, mourning doves, dark-eyed juncos, wrens, swallows, and others I couldn’t identify. I watched as some of the birds seemed to play chase together. At some point my ears were opened to the amazing sound of their many songs. It sounded to me like the music of heaven.

I continued watching this tree community for longer than it felt like I should, aware that God was asking me to stay still a little longer and be open. Then it hit me. This tree was a church – a living allegory of how the church – the body of Christ - is meant to be.

This majestic, deeply rooted, elder oak tree represented a sure foundation, a shelter, a home. Its arms reached far in all directions and it didn’t discriminate about who could come in and nest in its branches.

The tree-community was varied yet harmonious. There were no good birds or bad birds – just birds, living together in harmony while maintaining their unique identities and patterns of life. Their individual songs also came together into what sounded like a song of utter praise. It was joyful, lyrical, and unpredictable.

God’s plan of redemption is like that: joyful, lyrical, unpredictable. Despite our fear and selfishness, our attempts to limit and constrain (based on our sense of justice), and our need for certainty, the Spirit of God blows freely where it wills and works the plan of redemption promised to Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus, the Christ.

In Genesis, God’s plan for the redemption of the world requires both of Laban’s daughters to be wives to Jacob’s, even though Jacob only asked for Rachel. Let’s be clear, what Laban did was dishonest – a cruel trick. But God redeemed it as only God can do. You see, Jesus’ lineage is traced back to Abraham through Judah, who is Leah’s son.

In today’s gospel, Jesus uses a string of parables to challenge us to trust God and God’s plan of redemption. As you know, parables almost always contain a surprise – something to shock us out of our expectations.

In the first parable the seemingly tiny, insignificant mustard seed is transformed into a large, strong, welcoming, life-giving presence. Like the tree I witnessed at the hermitage, this parable is an allegory of the church. Sometimes God uses the same allegory over and over because it works.

The next parable, however, contains a real shocker – and it’s buried in the midst of the other parables so there’s hardly time to process the shock of it. Jesus says the reign of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with flour until all of it was leavened.

This makes perfect sense to us and it isn’t the least bit offensive, but to the Jewish listeners, this was shocking. Yeast was considered unclean. That’s why there could be no yeast present at the Passover. So the unclean was mixed together with the clean – by a woman! This is how we’re to understand the reign of God?

But Jesus doesn’t wait. On he goes… the reign of God is like a treasure someone finds. He hides the treasure, sells all he has, then claims the treasure for his own. Wait… the reign of God is characterized by ‘It’s mine, it’s all mine…’?

But Jesus doesn’t wait. On he goes… The next one is similar: the reign of God is like when a merchant, Who, experienced in knowing the quality of gems, finds an exquisite pearl, and sells all he has in order to have that perfect pearl.

The issue in these two parables isn’t hogging the kingdom. It’s realizing that nothing is worth having more than this treasure – the true treasure. These are stories of absolute commitment – something the church could use a bit more of today.

On Jesus goes, not waiting… the reign of God is like a dragnet, catching fish of every kind. This is how the end of time, the judgment will look, Jesus says. God will send angels to separate the good fish from the bad fish. The good fish will be collected into baskets and the bad fish will be thrown “into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Don’t you just love apocalyptic language? But remember, this is a parable, so it’s meant to upend our expectations. One of our expectations is that there are good fish and bad fish.

Another is that we’ll know which are which. Thankfully, Jesus makes clear that it isn’t our job to judge or separate the fish, not even in our thoughts. We’re to live together in this heavenly dragnet on earth until the angels come to separate the evil from the righteous.

Another of our expectations is that this is a metaphor about being sent to our eternal reward or punishment – but it isn’t. It’s about redemption. It’s always about redemption.

For the righteous, i.e., those who are in right relationship with God, the reconciliation begun in Jesus Christ is completed at this moment. They are reconciled with the Source of all that is and it is truly a heavenly reunion. They are now among all the communion of saints, living in perfect harmony in the company of heaven. This is not a reward – it’s an outcome.

Jesus says those whom the angels deem to be evil are cast “into the furnace of fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I know, it sounds like punishment, doesn’t it? But think about it – what is the plan of God? What was the purpose of the Incarnation?

The answer is always redemption. It’s always about redemption!

Remember, fire, in Biblical language, symbolizes the presence of God. Think about the burning bush in Genesis and the tongues of fire at Pentecost. Think about the refining fire of God’s love, purifying us the way silver is purified.

Those who have gone off the path of righteousness, those who are out of right relationship with God, are sent into the purifying presence of God. Yes, there is weeping and gnashing of teeth – because in the presence of God, we see every instance we failed to love God, our neighbor or ourselves, and it causes us to weep.

In the presence of God we remember every time we failed to forgive and held someone bound to their sin, and it causes us to share the grief of God which is too much for our mortal souls.

In the presence of God, who is love, and truth, and life, we recognize all those times we misused our God-given gifts to serve or punish ourselves rather than to fulfill God’s purpose for us and the world, and our regret is so intense, it is well described as gnashing of teeth.

In the presence of God we see the unguarded truth of ourselves. And the truth is, all of us have times in our lives when we are righteous – in right relationship with God, and all of us have moments when we are evil – out of right relationship with God. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.” (Source:

That’s why Jesus commands us not to judge. Instead, we’re to commit to live together in the diversity of the heavenly dragnet during our time on earth. And we’re to let our diversity bless instead of frighten us, knowing that God’s plan of redemption, which is beyond our comprehension and control, is assured. As Paul says in his epistle to the Romans, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, our Lord.

When we believe that, when we live like that, we are free to spend our time drawing close to God, that true treasure. God, who created us, loves us, and keeps us, as Julian of Norwich said. And we can each sing our unique song, which is brought by the grace of God into one joyful, lyrical, unpredictably beautiful song of utter praise to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Pentecost 4, 2014: Yoked to God

Lectionary: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45: 11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espritu Santo. Amen,

I came across this quote this week, written by a modern theologian in the middle 1980's: "Christians are to be an active and faithful alternative community of loving, merciful, inclusive, praying, missional servants anticipating the completion of God's purposes." (New Interpreter Study Bible, p. 1746)

Anticipating the completion of God's purposes is hard to do. What looks to us like things
aren't going well, may be, in God's vision are what's meant to be to lead us where we have to go.

That's what our gospel reading is showing us. This portion of the gospel from Matthew is part of a larger story:

John the Baptist in prison about to be killed, sends his followers to ask Jesus, 'Are you the One? Or should we wait for another?' Jesus answers them with great praise of John and his ministry (they were cousins, connected even from their mother's wombs) and says this to them: "For all the prophets and law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come." (vv 13-14) John is the Elijah who is to come, and the implication is: 'I am the One.'

Jesus closes with: "Let anyone with ears listen. (v 15)

I picture a pause between that statement and where our gospel picks up: "To what will I compare this generation..." In that pause, the Incarnate One, who is fully human and fully divine, is glimpsing at the big picture. He knows what's coming. His cousin, womb-buddy, friend, the man who baptized him, a is about to die. Jesus knows he's beginning the potion of his ministry that will lead him to the cross. And he's looking around at the people gathered there and he knows, they don't get it. They don't see it.

I think, in my imagination anyway, Jesus is sad. He looks around and he thinks, 'Look who I'm talking to... Your'e like children. You can't even play nice together. One group of children says to another 'Come share our joy! Come play with us!' but the other group of children won't even dance when they play their flute. Another group of children says to the other, 'Come share my grief. I'm very sad.' And this other group won't mourn with them.

He says to them: 'John came and neither ate nor drank and you say he has a demon. I came and I eat and drink and you say I'm a glutton and a drunkard. And then Jesus goes on and says, "and a friend of tax collectors and sinners" as if that accusation were as bad as being a glutton and a drunkard.

'You don't get it.' You almost hear Jesus sighing - 'You don't get it." And he says, "Yet, wisdom will be vindicated by her deeds." Look at the deeds.

Then our gospel reading skips verses 20-24, in which Jesus talks about the places where his ministry has happened, even his hometown: Capernaum. Jesus says, the very presence of God, Emmanuel, is among you doing these amazing things, healing people, setting them free from every sin that holds them bound and it doesn't change anything for you. Nothing has changed. You don't repent. You stay the course - a course which does not lead to life - because life is found in relationship with God. Life is God. When we're in relationship with God we know that Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life. Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.

Then our gospel story picks up and Jesus gives thanks. In his sadness, in his frustration he gives thanks and he says to God: 'Thank you for giving these things to these infants. The Greek word for this doesn't mean 'pure, innocent, babies.' It means those on the outside. Children were not allowed the adult male society, sot his word refers to those who were on the outside, who were vulnerable, who were disruptive. Ever been in around a bunch of kids when you need quiet? They can be disruptive.

These are the ones about whom Jesus is saying, 'thank you' because to them the Son of God has been revealed - not to the powerful, not to the religious leaders, not to the rich and the wealthy, but to these outsiders who are vulnerable and disruptive.

To them, Jesus says, "Come to me..." You who recognize me, come to me. You who are wearied and are carrying heavy burdens... come to me and I'll give you rest. As you know this is one of my favorite Bible verses. I use it each Sunday as our invitation to communion. Here's the underside of that, the rest of it: this statement by Jesus is profoundly anti-empireal. The listeners of his day would have heard him saying, 'The king is carrying your burden with you... Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you...' Think about this from their point of view. The king is saying, 'I will enter into a yoke with you.

(explain yoke)A strong beast could be yoked to a weaker beast and they could go together as a team. The strength of the one carries the burden for the other. That's the image Jesus is talking about. Jesus was saying 'Come to me, to me, to God to and I will give you rest.' And it isn't just rest from the oppression of the Romans. It's rest from the laws and the enforcement of those laws and the teachings and interpretation of the will of God by the religious leaders of the time.

Jesus said 'It's simple: love God; love neighbor as self.' But the religious leadership of the time said, 'No , it's very complication. You have to obey all 600+ of these rules or you won't get to heaven.'

Jesus says. "come to me you who are weary..." Have you tried to keep all those commandments? Nobody can do that. Jesus said, "Come to me... I will give you rest." Yoke yourself to me, to God, because I am meek and gentle of heart. My burden is easy. It's light. In other words, God is saying, 'I've got this. You get in the yoke with me. I've got the burden. I'll carry it for us.' For the people of that time, this kind of statement was shocking, ironic (Jesus loved irony) and transforming. Think of the relief it provided.

Everyday of our journey we are yoked to God - if we choose that. So, every challenge, every triumph, God is there with us, walking with us. The two of us have become one.

And there will be challenges. This is what St. Paul is offering us in the letter to the Romans. It's a description of the experience of the challenge each of us faces between law and grace. I do what I don't want to do. I know what I should do and I don't do that... What is that? How do I get there? We all go through this.

It's part of the Christian journey. We all get to that point where we see that the law isn't working an we feel compelled because of our relationship with God to break the law... but what if we go to hell? For instance, Jesus was out with his disciples and they were hungry so he picked grain on the Sabbath. He broke the law to feed his folks. He's out and sees a man who needs healing on the Sabbath. He breaks the law to heal the man.

I want to do what is right, but I do the very thing I hate, St. Paul says. How do I know which way is right? By being led. By being yoked to God we can know when the law is helping us hold ourselves accountable. For instance, "Keep holy the Sabbath." That doesn't mean if you miss church on a Sunday (don't miss church)you'll go to hell. What is means is, make sure in the rhythms of your life you make time for God. We're not very good at that - especially in modern culture. We're just not very good at that. The law helps us there.

But when the law says, don't work on the Sabbath, and you see a person in need of healing, do you let the suffer because of the law? No, Jesus said, 'No, bring them the love that heals them.'

We all know what this feels like: this battle, this challenge in our heads and our hearts between law and grace. For some of us is sounds like this: 'I know I should exercise every day and I will... starting tomorrow' (and we say that everyday). Or... 'I know I should eat right, or eat less, and I'll start my diet tomorrow. (Note: don't diet. Just eat well, and don't eat too much) Do you know how many diets start on Monday, and again on Tuesday? Then again on Wednesday? Then... I'll get past the weekend and start again on Monday. Right.

What about this? Accepting abusive words from another. Being abusive in word or deed to another. Hating someone because we learned to. The great lesson of the Civil Rights movement was that people who had learned to hate one another, learned something new: they learned to love one another, to work together, to honor the God in one another - on the issue of race anyway.

Hating someone because we learned to despite what current experience is telling us. The continuing revelation of love and it teaches us to love more, love bigger, love better, love deeper. Love God and one another as ourselves.

What about this challenge between grace and law: hating ourselves because we have for so long? Because somewhere in our childhood someone told us we weren't beautiful enough, or smart enough, or worthy of love, or useful, and we believed that lie. And year after year it lived and us and now we believe it just out of habit.

Jesus showed us that we and everyone else are beloved of God. Everyone: sinners, outsiders, the poor, the hungry, the insane, the annoying, the cruel, the ignorant, the elite, the powerful - all beloved children of God.

When we don't connect to that truth, when we live in the lie that somebody isn't beloved, we have slipped out of our yoke and we're walking on our own. Then when that person comes to us - the one who annoys the heck out of us, or scares us, or hates us, we're alone. We're unguarded and we do this (motions self-protection).

But when we're yoked to God, that person comes to us and we're seeing them through the love of God to which we're yoked, and all of a sudden we recognize the gift: the gift they bring us and the gift we have to offer to them, which is love.

The other thing about slipping out of our yoke is that we lead ourselves to believe that we can handle our own burden, or even the burdens of others, but we can't - and we don't have to - we're not meant to - we're meant to be yoked to God who helps us see ourselves, others, and every circumstance in our lives through he eyes of love so that we can choose to respond with grace and mercy instead of reacting out of habit, or fear, or hatred, or shame.

"Come to me you who are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart,and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

Being yoked to God means not having to recognize the completion of God's purposed on earth by what we see or hear or experience but knowing everything that's happening is happening in that truth because of our faith. When Jesus was tried and executed, it didn't look like the working out of God's purposes, did it? And yet it was. It's by faith that we walk through those moments together. It's by faith that everything is moving toward the completion of God's purposes on earth because Christ has already come and inaugurated the era of salvation.

So we need protect ourselves from nothing. We need separate ourselves from no one, but rather engage everything and find the gift of God in it.

I close with a prayer from George Appleton to guide us:

"O thou Source of love and Compassion
in the sufferings of all thy children,
we offer our compassion also
for the hungry, and the sick in body, mind or heart,
the depressed and the lonely,
all living in fear and under stress,
all stricken in grief,
the unemployed and the rejected,
and those burning with hatred.
Strengthen us to work for their healing
and inspire us to build with thee
the Kingdom of love
where none shall cause suffering to others
and all be caring, loving children of thine,
Our Compassionate, all-embracing [God],
everpresent, everloving,
never failing.

Source: The Oxford Book of Prayer, ed. George Appleton, (Oxford University Press, 1985) p. 370).