God in, through, and with the Eleven

This is my sermon from July 30, 2023. It is not based on the lectionary we heard because July 29th was the 49th anniversary of the Ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven, newly observed in The Episcopal Church.  July 29, 1974 changed the Church in ways we are still discerning and should be talking about. For our service, ee added the Collect of the Day and amended the Prayers of the People using the resources from the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.

I think we probably all have had the experience of remembering exactly where we were when something momentous happened.  As I was growing up, and I think most of you will remember this reference, the question always was, “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?”  Younger generations now have the memory of where they were on September 11th.  We also sometimes have these memories of where we were when something beautiful happened.  For Ron and me, I think we will always remember the weekend of May 19, 2023, when Kevin had us open a box and in it were Grandma Bear and Grandpa Bear mugs, which was when we found out we are expecting our first grandchild.   

I have another of those days that I know I share with more people than I can count, probably more women than men, but certainly some men.  And that was July 30, 1974.  That was the day I learned that the Philadelphia Eleven were ordained at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia on July 29th.  I remember because I was with my two best friends.  Mischelle and I were literally doing cartwheels on the lawn at church, and there was Jamie, just standing back saying, “there’s my best friend and she’s nuts.”  That was the day I remember hearing that some really brave men, bishops in the Church, chose to do something that was extra-canonical, was deemed to be “irregular,” and to ordain eleven women, all of whom were fully trained and fully educated, meeting all of the requirements for ordination in the Episcopal Church except for one: they were women, not men.  

I can’t even describe what that felt like.  I am going to do my best now because I think when we have those experiences of the grace of God, part of what we’re to do is to share them with each other. So that day, when we overhead some guys (They were on the Vestry and at that point there were no women on vestries in the Episcopal Church.) talking about this thing that had happened the day before.  While listening to them talk, I felt -it occurred to me in that way that is a fiery feeling head-to-toe – that finally the Church that I had loved my whole life, that Church that I chose over the Roman Catholic Church that I also attended until I was twelve, that Church had finally taken a step toward recognizing something that I had known about myself from the time I was six years old was possible.  

I know some of you have heard my story, it’s a big part of my faith story.  I was sitting in St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church on Lincoln Street in Worcester, Massachusetts on Good Friday, when I was six, and we were sitting in the side chapel looking at the Reserve Sacrament, which you did for three hours, even when you were six.  We were sitting there and off to my left, facing the altar wall not the people, a male priest was doing whatever priests did, in Latin.  I had no idea understanding of what it meant other than that’s what happened when you came to church.  And I remember hearing this and looking at the Reserve and at a beautiful statue of the Blessed Mother, and I heard, again in that way that feels like a whole-body experience – I heard God say, “You’re going to do that someday.”  

Now, I didn’t know what “that” was.  What I did know was that it made no sense because I was a girl.  It wouldn’t be possible.  And I went on to wonder do I become a nun, is that what is was?  But I knew I never felt drawn to the nunnery, as we would say back then. I never felt drawn, called to the religious life in that way.  I just trusted in God enough to know that eventually it would make some sense.  

Well, the eventually became July 29th, 1974, where at 13 ½ years old, this calling I had known for more than half of my young life, had been affirmed in eleven other women.  And when I think about what that says about the God that we worship, the God that we trust and have faith in, it is more than just the somewhat distant, “With God all things are possible.” It is about recognizing that when we are faithful and true to the call of God on our lives, our lives become for us what God intended that they be.  They don’t happen perfectly, we don’t become perfect people, we don’t necessarily become different people, but we have the blessing to live into who it is that God already ordained us to be, whether that’s ordained as a priest or as a preschool teacher.  Whoever we are at our core, we have the possibility of becoming.  

We work alongside God in that.  I was thinking, and Bruce had no way of knowing, but we had a little chat before church about something completely unrelated, and I said, “I have confidence in God.”  And Bruce said, “Yes.  And we need to show that God can have confidence in us.”  It is something that we do with God, but it is by God, and in God, and through God that we are given the opportunity to be who we are, and then for some of us – though I dare say everyone of you could join me in this – we share our story because people expect us to witness to God in that way.  

I had the huge blessing to meet a number of the Philadelphia Eleven around the time and through seminary.  Two of them: one I did not get to meet, Suzanne Hiatt, who died in 2006, and Carter Heyward were part of the EDS community, where we had the Hiatt Heyward lecture series.  They accepted their ordination as not an end in a process, but as an inflection point in the middle – no doubt a mountain top, pinnacle experience – from which they went on to share their wisdom and experience about how we include people in the Body of Christ in ways that are not bound by our very limited experience of who can do what when, but are based in our trust that God’s grace in the gifts that we have received needs to be fully lived in the world.   

Another one of these amazing women, Alison Cheek, was on the faculty of EDS as well, and had retired by the time I arrived and was auditing classes.  I had two courses with Allison, who must have been at least in her 80’s at that time.  She sat next to me in these classes and this expression of unity, this expression of possibility, of God’s possibility was palpable.  It’s like she vibrated with God’s Spirit.  

I share this with you because I think it is so important for all of us to share the ways God has worked in and through us in our lives, and also to say that the ordination of the Eleven was truly church-shattering.  We continue to struggle in some places, in the Anglican Communion for sure, and also in the Episcopal Church, with what are the roles that certain people can play in the Church.  In the Diocese of Newark we’re a little insulated from it because it tends to be one of the more progressives dioceses in the Episcopal Church.  Women have had rectorates in cardinal parishes, cardinal parishes being the big parishes with endowments and large staffs.  We have women as rectors in some of those parishes but there are still parts of the country where that doesn’t happen.

In addition to women, the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven, which was then deemed okay by General Convention in 1976, though it continued to be more okay in theory than in practice for a couple decades, opened up possibilities for more people.  We had The Rt. Rev. Barbara Clementine Harris from the Diocese of Massachusetts who was the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion.  Bishop Barbara broke the gender barrier and, as a Black woman, she opened things even a little bit further.   

And that, my friends, is how God works.  When we open hearts to the movement of the Spirit, when we gather with others who are brave and bold in their faith, as were the bishops who ordained and consecrated the Eleven forty-nine years ago yesterday, we understand God more fully.  When we are not constrained by the way we’ve always done it, we become a part of creating the truly radically welcoming, inviting community of God’s beloved.  When we allow ourselves to take those steps, even when it means risking a lot – because make no mistake, the women risked a lot, the bishops who ordained and consecrated them, risked a lot – but when we’re willing to take those chances, we become a part of something bigger and better, something more inclusively loving, than the Church as we know it in any given point in time.  

That witness is, perhaps, one of the most awesome ways we get to thank God for being God, to thank God for being who God is in our lives in the mountain-top experiences, like ordinations, and in the day-to-day experiences, like mopping the floors.  We get to acknowledge that who we are directly relates to, it flows from who God is, and our experience of God’s love becomes more unconditional (if you can have something become more unconditional), more expansive, more grace-filled, than if we play by our own rules.  These eleven women broke ground in God’s kingdom to create more space for other women, more space for people of color, more space for our LGBTQ+ siblings, more space for all of us to discern how it is that by God’s grace that we get to live as authentically and with as much integrity as God would have us live.

To live a just life fairly

This is my sermon from July 23, 2023, the Eighth Sunday after the Pentecost. We use Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church. These are the readings: 1 Samuel 8:1, 4-18, Psalm 99, Revelation 19:5-9, and Matthew 20:1-16.

This Gospel is often interpreted as being about the end times, known in theological terms as eschatology.  It often is interpreted as being about salvation through Jesus Christ, known in theological terms as soteriology.  I would venture to say it is about both. It is about the end times, when all is perfected by God.  It is also about how we live the promise of salvation in this time, when we can do our best to live into the Gospel imperative of loving God with our full selves and loving our neighbors as God loves us.  Either way, as familiar as it may be, this is a parable that challenges us to consider what it means when we hear things like, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” and my new favorite opportunity for reflection, “Or are your eyes envious because I am generous?”  

I can’t remember exactly how we got there, but several of us had a conversation about the first being last and the last being first during supper one night when I was at Yale.  (I know, your envious of the riveting mealtime conversation, aren’t you?)  One of my fellow fellows said, “Life isn’t fair. It’s just.”  And that got me to thinking that a case could be made that the laborers in this story are justified in making their complaint based on who did what, but I’m pretty certain that God’s view, which related to stories like these, is sometimes called “God’s economy,” is radically different than ours.  We equate fairness with justice, when in fact they are related but not the same.  

According to dictionary.com, fairness is” the state, condition, or quality of being fair, or free from bias or injustice, evenhandedness.”  The definition of fair is:

  1. “1. free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice; 
  2. 2. legitimately sought, pursued, done, given, etc.; proper under the rules.” 

Justice is “the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness or moral righteousness.” Just is “guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness; done or made according to principle; equitable, proper.”  

Fairness is linked to judgment in particular situations.  It is not an overly general principle to be applied in the same ways in every situation.  Justice links to morality and ethics.  In likely is an oversimplification, fairness is about how we human respond given a specific set of conditions or circumstances.  Justice is the lens through which we live most faithfully answering the question that the late Peter Gomes would have us ask, “What would Jesus have us do?”  

Though certainly not in response to anything Jesus would have said or done because he lived about 400 years before Jesus was born, Aristotle said that justice means “equals should be treated equally, unequals unequally.”  And this is where we get stuck sometimes.  We tend to look at equality in terms of status or resources or education or any number of criteria that we humans have decided matter in this equation.  We have used those criteria to decide who gets what when and who does not.  For instance, we decide that certain jobs are worth more than others and tell ourselves this is empirically true, even when our live experience tells us this is not quite as empirical or objective as it is conditional and subjective.  An example of this is the seemingly ever-widening gap between the wages of the heads of corporations and the rest of the employees.  Is it empirically true that top are executives are doing 400x more work than their employees? We do it, too, when we allocate resources to public schools where those who live in certain zip codes, even within the same city, have access to higher quality education than those in other zip codes. Depending upon your interpretation of fairness, this can be justified.  

And now I’m back to dictionary.com with its two definitions of justified:

  1. having been shown to be just or right;
  2. warranted or well-grounded.

 Justification that something is warranted or well-grounded does not necessarily make it ethically or morally correct.  Justice is inclusive of “moral righteousness,” which is a principle that enables, empowers, and emboldens us to live in relationship with others in ways that are justified as if we were the world and all people as God does, which circles back to good old Aristotle and his idea that justice is about equality.  God does not look at us and judge us by what we have or how successful we’ve been.  God sees us as God created us, in her image, nothing more and nothing less.  And that is a universal truth.  

Looking at this Gospel eschatologically, it is about judgment on the last day, as it were.  Looking at it soteriologically, it is about grace of our salvation through Jesus, which is something that is both now and yet to be.  Robert Farrar Capon, who wrote three wonderful books about the parables said this story is “about a grace that works by raising the dead, not rewarding the rewardable, and it is a judgment that falls hard only upon those who object to the indiscriminate catholicity [universality] of the arrangement.” (The Parables of Grace, p. 54)  

May we accept the grace of God for us and for all, and do our very best to live our faith justly.  Amen.

Blessed to be a blessing

This is my sermon from July 9, 2023, the Sixth Sunday after the Pentecost in Year A. We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church. The readings were 1 Samuel 2:18-21, 26; Psalm 111; 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8; and Matthew 18:23-35

Last week, when the Gospel reading was Matthew’s feeding of the four thousand (15:29-39), Rev. Jane talked about Jesus feeding the peoples’ physical hunger, need to know God, and their need for each other, for community – a need they may or may not have known they had.  She also said that Jesus listened to the people.  And she went on to say it is a story about hospitality.  I would go so far as to call it an act of radical hospitality.  Rev. Jane also mentioned that she had read about existence as being the need for conversation with each other and as a response to God.  

So…between that story about the feeding of the four thousand and today’s story, a lot has happened in Matthew’s Gospel.  There’s been the Transfiguration, a healing, a few parables, and Jesus’ foretelling of his death and resurrection.  Jesus has talked about how to avoid the temptation of sin and how to deal with conflict in the community.  To say the least, Jesus and the disciples have been very busy.  

And now, three chapters later, we have today’s Gospel, in which Jesus talks about forgiveness, which seems something of an organic part of the arc of the narrative about our need to know God and be a part of a community.  Jesus talks about what I would think could be called, “radical forgiveness.”  

I think we probably already know that forgiveness is not easy.  Whether we’re the one in need of forgiveness or the one being asked to forgive, it can be a real challenge.  There’s so much of who we are – or think we are – and how we see the world and our place in it that comes into play when we need to ask for or extend forgiveness.  And, for some reason, we tend to think it’s a one-and-done kind of thing, perhaps especially when where the ones being asked to extend forgiveness to another.  

It’s reasonable, isn’t it, to step up onto that high road once, but more than that?… Come on!  And yet, to hear Jesus talk about it, we should just move on to that high road and take up residence there.  Why bother to move from it at all if we’re going to have to extend forgiveness over and over again?  It makes me want to say, “Really, Jesus?  Not just seven times seven, but seventy times seven times?  Who do you think we are?”  

And I can imagine Jesus saying, “I know exactly who you are.  More than that, I know who you were created to be and how you can live into the promise of becoming your best self.  Pay attention to what I have to say.  Listen.  Listen deeply with your whole self.  Listen as I have listened to you.  And remember, forgiving more than seventy times seven is what God has done, does, and will always do for you.”  

The late – and dare I say, great – Archbishop Desmond Tutu talked a lot about forgiveness.  His understanding of forgiveness was shaped in part by growing up with a violently abusive alcoholic father and his work in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.  He defined forgiveness as “the capacity to make a new start.”  He said, “Forgiveness is the grace by which we enable the other person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew.  In the act of forgiveness we are declaring our faith in the future of a relationship and in the capacity of the wrong doer to change.”   

Archbishop Tutu was clear that forgiveness is not the same as forgetting.  “Forgiveness does not relieve someone of responsibility for what they have done.  Forgiveness does not erase accountability.  It is not about turning a blind eye or even turning the other cheek.  It is not about letting someone off the hook or saying it is okay to do something monstrous.  Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed.  Within every hopeless situation and every seemingly hopeless person lies the possibility of transformation.”  

When we hold onto our anger and resentment, we make life, including forgiveness, harder than it needs to be.  Our relationships with each other suffer above and beyond whatever offense has been experienced. Our relationships with God suffer because we fail to truly know what it means to love as we have been loved, so we can’t truly know what it means to be loved unconditionally.  Another consequence of carrying our anger is that we fail to open space for healing, for ourselves and for others.  Our hopes and dreams for a better world are dashed.  

There is a saying rooted in Jewish theology, “may you be blessed to be a blessing” that summarizes this idea and the teaching about forgiveness in today’s Gospel.  What God gives us we are asked to share with others.  This is part of how our needs to know God and to have a life-giving community are met.  God knows we are not perfect, nor will we ever be.  And I believe that’s okay with God, even as I believe with my whole being that embodying our faith means that we do our best to do better each and every day.  And that means recognizing the blessing God’s love for us and living it forward every day.