Friday, January 31, 2014

St. Aelred's Day Homily

The following homily was offered by Province IV Coordinator Bruce Garner on Saturday, January 11 as Integrity Palm Beach observed the Feast of St. Aelred at St. Andrew's: Lake Worth.

The Feast of St. Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx

We have heard the words of the readings for this evening many many times.

Integrity Province IV Coordinator Bruce
with Exec. Director Vivian Taylorat Atlanta Pride in 2013
The reading from Ruth is read at countless weddings ….and of course now for the blessing of same gender relationships as well. Despite whatever baggage these words may have collected over the years, the message is still very clear: commitment… commitment to someone you love and who presumably loves you. They are the hallmark words of devotion to another with whom one has some form of relationship.

Holy Women, Holy Men has added a reading from Philippians, the closing words from the Philippians passage sum up the directions that precede them: Look not to your own interests but to the interests of others….again with those with whom there is a relationship.

Then we hear the familiar words in Mark about the two great commandments we have been given……both grounded in love…..unconditional love. "'Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.'"

We highlight the importance of this passage by including part of it in our General Confession as we confess that "we have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves."

This passage poses the second "trick question" to Jesus found in this chapter of Mark’s Gospel. The previous trick question was posed by some of the Sadducees a few verses earlier.

It asks whose wife a woman would be in the resurrection after she had married and survived the deaths of seven brothers, being passed as property to each in succession.

Jesus condemns the Sadducees for their hypocrisy in asking a question about a concept in which they had no belief, i.e., resurrection. And of course he is clear in telling them how wrong they are.

Window at St. Andrew's Church, Lake Worth
home parish of Integrity Palm Beach
PHOTO CREDIT: Christian Paolino
So now the Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus again. They are looking for a way around something clearly already know. They want Jesus to say something for which they can condemn him. They are looking for a "gotcha moment." They do not get their "gotcha moment."

They immediately realize that Jesus has provided an absolutely correct response to their question, a response that is familiar to all of them.

What do these readings say to us? Do they speak differently to those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender….LGBT…..the sexual orientation alphabet!

Are we as clear as Jesus in understanding that there are no exceptions or qualifications to loving God or loving our neighbor?

Our love of God, perhaps even our faith is put to the test when we find ourselves facing someone who is completely and totally not lovable from any reasonable perspective we can discern. Yet we are called to love and love without exception or qualification. We are called to love as we have been loved and as we are loved:. God hates nothing that God has made. God IS love.

As my rector is constantly reminding us: We are made by love for love. For God is love….and so we have been created… by love for love.

We may not be so good at following a portion of that Scriptural passage cited by Jesus: It’s the portion about loving ourselves. That’s the condition and the caveat by which we are to love others: as we love ourselves. The question is: Do we really love ourselves?

For most who choose to follow Jesus, loving themselves is probably not all that big an issue. But what about us? What about those of us, who because of sexual orientation and/or gender identity, have heard a constant message about how UN-lovable we are?

How can we love our neighbor or even God when we have problems loving ourselves…..loving the creature that God made?

We live in a part of the United States and a province of the Episcopal Church where we are probably more likely to hear about how un-lovable we are to both God and other people. That atmosphere has an impact on us. It may be subtle. It may be blatant. We might not even realize how it affects us. We do allow many of the negative messages we hear about LGBT people to enter our consciousness and our sub-consciousness. We believe more of the trash talk than most of us realize or are willing to admit.

Some of the responsibility for the ongoing negative messages rests upon those of us who are LGBT. That is in no way a statement that we deserve such treatment or that others should be allowed to treat us differently.

Let’s look at this from a different perspective. Who knows that you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender? How "out" are you to your family, friends, and most importantly your faith community.

In that light: How many folks would make negative comments about someone’s sexual orientation if they realized that someone in their immediate circle was one of those they treated less than a full and equal child of God? We are not marked in some way to identify our sexual orientation. A person of color usually cannot hide her/his race or ethnicity. An LGBT person can hide in plain sight. How often have we made disparaging remarks about some person or group not realizing that one of "them" was standing among us?

Several years ago during my working career, I engaged in the design, built out and inspection process of offices for the Social Security Administration. I was involved in space planning, layout, design and lease administration.

I had been on the site of a large project, here in Florida actually, for an entire week. During an informal conversation with several of the construction trades and the property owner, that same property owner told a fag joke…with me standing there. I didn’t say anything at the time, trying to be as consummate a professional as I could be. At the closing inspection when just the two of us were there, I quietly looked at him and said: The next time you tell a fag joke in a group of people, you might want to make sure there isn’t a fag standing there. After nearly choking, he looked at me and acknowledged that he had seen fire flash in my eyes when he had told the joke. He knew he had crossed a line. I wasn’t nasty or rude to the man, but I did use the event as a teaching moment. Being able to pass for straight does have its advantages. Educational opportunities come about for us all the time if we choose to use them. Of course it was also helpful for me to stand a head taller than the dude and out weigh him by some 30 pounds! Being a big old faggot sometimes has advantages!!

How much hiding in plain sight do we do in our own faith communities? How much in church?

We have learned over the years that the conversations and the interactions change dramatically when those who share our faith community begin to understand that there really are a substantial number of LGBT folks who love God and worship God the same way as those who are not LGBT. It becomes more difficult to make an issue out of someone we have come to know and love. It becomes more difficult to really want to deny the fullness of our church to those who we see engaging with God the same way we engage with God: through prayer and worship.

It takes courage to be out about who we are as LGBT people, even, if not particularly so in the church. It is not an easy path to walk. I know, I have been there.

From 1993 until about 2009, I found myself as the only openly gay deputy or alternate deputy to General Convention in all 20 dioceses that make up Province IV of our church. Note that I didn’t say I was the only gay person.

I was the only openly gay person. I knew others….and I kept their confidences….including some closeted clergy.

I lost count of the number of times that something about sexual orientation was being discussed at Provincial Synod and I began to hear the usual negative comments about LGBT folks, mostly very inaccurate comments, many ignorant comments and many that were painful to hear.

I began to notice a change in the tenor of the conversations when I quietly walked up to a microphone and gently requested that folks talk with and to me and other LGBT folks and not talk about us……as if we were not present during these conversations. Each time I did that, it was like coming out all over again. There was some degree of nervousness and uncertainty.

But each time it became easier than the last. And each time it proved more than worth the anxiety. It was a rare occasion that I didn’t feel a tremendous amount of love and care after having spoken. I don’t know that my comments always made a difference in the outcome of a vote. I do know that my open presence and honesty about who I was as a child of the living God did change the conversations.

Remember something very important if you remember nothing else: It is much more difficult to demean or dismiss a human face than it is to demean or dismiss an issue. When the issue has a face, the conversation changes. My own personal ministry for many years has been to put the face on the faggot. For when the faggot has a face, he is no longer the faggot, he is the child of God he always was.

Some may not like the terminology, but I believe it is important to name that which causes pain and discrimination or we will never see it end. Such has always been true of any marginalized group of people. No one sitting here this evening is an issue. Each and every one of us is a remarkable child of God, created in God’s image and reflective of the love that God has for all God has created.

The success of ministry with, by and to the LGBT community and conversely the church is a direct result of being open and honest about who we are…..and dealing with the cost and consequences. That is not to say that everyone must be as open as everyone else. I live in a real world. For some of us it is still not safe for us to be who we are. But let me also tell you that the liberation that comes from being open is truly a gift from God! The truth is that LGBT folks have always been part of the church. There is a simple but profound joy that comes from realizing just how much of an extent we have always been there.

The ministry of St. Aelred gave us all a gift. He gave us, through his instructions to his monks, the gift of sharing affection. He encouraged his monks to do something as simple as holding hands, as expressing affection for each other. No where do we find anything suggesting a sexual component in his teachings. We just find something we have allowed to diminish in our society and church: simple affection for each other, affection without further intent or any inappropriate component.

Think about something very simple that we do in church at most of our services: We exchange the peace of Christ with each other. We have the image and model of heterosexual couples engaging in a hug and often a kiss during the exchange of the peace.

What do those of us who are lesbian or gay instinctively do or not do as same gender couples? Do we model the same level of affection and care for each other as those heterosexual couples? Or do we nod, maybe shake hands, or engage in the briefest of hugs. Certainly no one wants to see, nor is it appropriate for those public displays of affection that go too far. But why would we find a need to deny ourselves the same basic and ordinary displays of affection at such an important time as others take for granted?

Now I realize that exchanging the peace remains a moment of truth for many Episcopalians… means we actually have to acknowledge that someone else is in church with us, much less in the pew next to us! Some of us are still the frozen chosen and it has nothing to do with sexual orientation…..or on the other hand maybe it has more to do with that than we might think.

We have also been given another wonderful and precious gift in the Episcopal Church. Do we realize that? Do we share what we have been given?

Think back to the first commandment for a moment. Loving God with our heart and soul and strength is probably not all that difficult or even remarkable. But what about loving God with our minds? What about the idea of actually thinking about God and how we relate to God? How often do we hear even a suggestion in many faith communities that people worship God with their minds?

We, as Episcopalians, are constantly asked to worship God with our minds. We are challenged to engage with God in a substantive way, working out our salvation with the one who created us. Have you ever pondered what a gift it is to be allowed, to be asked, to be encouraged to worship God with your mind?

It has been by worshiping God with our minds that we have come to conclusions about how we should relate to each other….regardless of how alike or different we are.

There is a hurting world outside the walls of our churches. It is a world filled with folks who desperately need to hear that God loves them and that the people of God love them. We have traveled a difficult journey over the last few decades in helping us believe and practice what our Book of Common Prayer reminds us about the need to love God and to love our neighbors. If we do not share what we have learned with others, we have lighted the lamp and then put it under the proverbial bushel basket.

We, as a church, are not particularly good at evangelism. No real news there for any of us! The term scares many of us….often because of some of our past history in other church communities. In reality, we just need to learn to share the good news we have received with others. We need to invite others to join us in a remarkable and fulfilling journey with the God of love who created us for love. It is a journey all make at some point in life and we can offer a route that may not be expected…..especially about worshiping God with or mind.

A gift gains greater value when it is shared with others. Are we willing to share? Do the signs proclaiming "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" just spout a tired old slogan? Or do we really welcome all without restriction, exception, qualification or other criteria? Is it only a saying or do we really mean it?

Hear O Israel, Hear St. Andrews, and Hear Integrity Palm Beach: Love the lord our God with all that we are and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets… least that is what Jesus told us…..should we argue the point? Probably not. So let the people now say Amen!

Bruce Garner is the Province IV Coordinator for Integrity USA and served as its president from 1990-1994.  He also has served as a deputy to General Convention and as a member of the Executive Council of the church.

1 comment:

Ted Garvin said...

Thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia. (How's that for an Amen?).