Friday, October 28, 2011

Religion That Rocks! (Micah 6:6-8)

               “What shall I bring when I come before Adonai,
                   and bow down before God on high?” you ask.
                “Am I to come before God with burnt offerings?
                   With year-old calves?
                Will Adonai be placated by thousands of rams
                   or ten thousand rivers of oil?
                Should I offer my firstborn for my wrongdoings –
                   the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
                Listen here, mortal:
                God has already made abundantly clear
                   what “good” is, and what Adonai needs from you:
                simply do justice,
                   love kindness,’
                   and humbly walk with Adonai.
Micah 6:6-8

At its best religion links us back to the ground of our being. At its best religion serves in establishing a relationship with the sacred dimension of life. At its best religion connects us to the web of creation. At its best religion is life manifesting. Little wonder religion has always been a part of the human experience.

Micah asks the question central to all viable faiths, how do we honor the great Heart of the universe? Does the Sacred desire offerings – what size is appropriate for the One who is maker of heaven and earth? Or is the mark of an appropriate tribute its cost to us? Should it be something valuable like flesh of my flesh? As we saw with Abraham, many good religious parents have sacrificed their queer children’s flesh in order to appease a disappointed and angry god (see the post “Sick Religion”).

Micah says such thinking is foolishness. God does not desire things such as smoke off a burnt offering or blood for justice. Micah says that there is nothing we can do to honor God with “stuff.” Rather, it is the quality of relationships – justice, kindness, humility – that honor the Sacred. Accordingly Micah indicates that it is how we relate with others that truly links us to the ground of our being.

The philosopher, Martin Buber, expanded this insight with his understanding of I-Thou. He summarized that it is the life generated in and through the gift of a “You” (Thou) which permits and authorizes an “I.”

It is far easier to buy God off with “stuff” due to the inherent danger involved in honoring the Sacred through a close relationship. After all, when I am “being with” another it means being in the presence of, being committed to, being identified with, being at risk with (to borrow an insight of the scriptural scholar Walther Eichrodt).

Hence, Micah understands that lovers of the Sacred are those who do justice, adore kindness, and walk humbly upon the earth with God. This is religion at its best – this is religion which rocks my world!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Public Acceptance (Philemon 3)

Grace and peace from Abba God and Our Savior Jesus Christ                 
                   Philemon 3

There is a rather interesting story behind this short letter of Paul. The recipient of the letter, Philemon, incurred a debt to Paul. Most likely something connected to Paul’s visit to Colossae. Subsequent to that visit Paul was imprisoned by the Romans.

Meanwhile, Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, escaped. In the understanding of Roman society, Onesimus incurred a debt to his master. Eventually, Onesimus was caught and round up Paul’s cellmate.

A friendship grows and Onesimus is converted – now a fellow christian with Philemon. Eventually Onesimus is freed from jail and Paul sends him back to Philemon. Paul also sends a letter of appeal to Philemon and offers to repay Onesimus’ debt. Onesimus arrives in Colossae with the letter to which Philemon responds in the positive (see v. 21). Paul, still in jail, anticipates a future visit to Philemon’s home.

What is unique about this letter and somewhat even contrary to the advice of 2 Timothy (a possible Pauline letter) is that here Paul is in earnest seeking the release of the slave Onesimus. While tame to our sensibilities it was quite a revolutionary letter given its intent for public reading. Of course today we would say it does not go far enough – and it doesn’t. But a closer look at the letter reveals an interesting understanding of how the Sacred plays out in the lives of those who are unequal.

Following a suggestion by Richard Melick, Jr. the central message of this letter may be the idea of community, here understood as “interchange” between people. Paul presents the close relationship he has with Philemon. Then, Paul presents the close relationship he has with Onesimus. Both people have a good friendship with Paul, and are “united” through Paul. Due to the close relationship between each person and Paul, there should be close ties, or “interchange” between Philemon and his runaway slave, Onesimus.

This mirrors an insight of the world religions. Due to our connections with the Sacred we share a certain close relationship with those others who are also connected with the Holy. Though we are different we come together, or interchange through the Divine who is the meeting place between us.

While Paul’s salutation, quoted above, is traditional, the use of the word “grace” is an indication of the community and interchange Paul sought to outline. Grace is an overused word which has lost its meaning. In the word’s rooted understanding grace simply means acceptance. Here Paul appeals to a slave owner to accept a runaway slave as God has accepted the slave owner – as a beloved child.

Revolutionary indeed! How different would the queer life be if anti-queer persons could accept us as God does? If we could accept homophobic people as God accepts us?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Divinely Sanctioned to Hate? (Joel 3:1-2)

               After that, I will pour out my Spirit on all humankind.
                   Your daughters and sons will prophesy,
                your elders will have prophetic dreams,
                   and your young people will see visions.
                In those days, I will pour out my Spirit
                   even on those in servitude,
                   women and men alike.
Joel 3:1-2 Hebrew verse number, 2:28-29 most English verse numbers

Is discrimination lodged in the Sacred? Do we have a divinely sanctioned right to hate others as a result of their birth?

This question runs deep for me. After all, I participate in a religious complex that gives holy authorization to hate and bigotry. As a gay person who happens to be a minister, I am more than aware that I work to extend the life and influence of an institution that over the centuries has labeled many as unfit and dispatched such souls to the afterlife.

Is this prejudice lodged in God? More conformist and spiteful voices would have us believe so. Joel the prophet unequivocally says no!

Joel’s vision of the Holy is on such a grand scale that when the first christians needed to express their own experience of God they quoted Joel directly. It seems that no other vision was large enough to express their expansive experience of the Sacred (see Acts 2:16-21).

Joel informs us that the Sacred does not acknowledge or pay heed to the hierarchical structures of human societies. God’s lavish Spirit is poured out on all people: male and female, young and old, master and slave. I would add straight and queer. Joel’s God is a god that transcends the barriers of culture so that “all flesh” may know the touch of the Divine.

Joel’s vision cuts across social constructs and the prejudice they serve. Joel plays the subversive roll of the spiritual egalitarian and at the very least indicates that God is not a bigot. As enacted in Acts, God’s Spirit creates a new society. Where there are obstructions the joining of hearts and minds become commonplace.

We are far from Joel’s vision as both straight and queer communities imbibe in their own orthodoxies and hierarchies. For Joel, the Sacred really is beyond the petty divisions we wrap around ourselves. Instead, the Sacred is available to all, open to all, and seeks all.

The bible says it – why can’t we believe it?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Not Playing Along (Acts 28:30-31)

For two full years, Paul stayed on in his rented lodgings, welcoming all who came to visit. With full assurance, and without any hindrance whatever, Paul preached the kindom of God and taught about our Savior Jesus Christ.                                                                                    
                   Acts 28:30-31

The second half of the Acts of the Apostles may well be labeled “the perils of Paul.” Through the highs and lows of Paul’s ministry we are swept: his dream of carrying good news to those naive of the Sacred, his speech at the Acropolis in Athens, his collection for the poor back home, his arrest in Jerusalem, his adventure of being shipwrecked on the way to face the authorities in Rome, and now his house arrest.

If I didn’t know better I would say the point of the second half of Acts was to inform us of what a failure Paul was. Yet, far from being silenced we find Paul at the end of this tale just as vigorous and active as at the beginning.

As a gay leader in a religious tradition that in arrogance abused and continues to abuse queer persons I have often wanted to throw my hands up and turn my vestments in. I am ashamed of myself when I delicately sidestep my own sexual orientation when listening to a church lament the loss of their secretary because of the pro-queer stance of my denomination. Under a “queer house arrest” I am tempted to throw the towel in and say “up yours!”

Then I am reminded of Paul in Rome. Safe in Rome the religious leaders of Jerusalem no longer needed to worry. Safe in Rome the more confirming religious leaders of the budding church no longer needed to worry. Safe under the watchful eye of the imperial authorities Paul could be kept in place.

But Paul did not play along. Instead of heeding those who worked to keep him walled in, Paul heeded the call to spread the good news. To speak about how God is stretching a realm that is marked by inclusion and understanding. And even though sequestered, Paul’s insistence was unhindered and full of competence.

I am by far not the only queer minister. Many have accomplished far more then I will dream of. Many will minister faithfully in situations and circumstances that overwhelm any experience I may ever have. I give thanks for these colleagues and for their competent ministries in spite of the opposition they encounter.

The narrative for us queer ministers, rabbis, imams, and other religious leaders might read as if to show our own failure. Yet like Paul, our competence and insistence will prove another story is at work – the story of the radical grace and blessing of the Sacred.