Saturday, May 26, 2007

"Unexpected Ministry" -- A Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter

[Sorry for the delay, this is the sermon from May 20th, the 7th Sunday of Easter (a week ago)]

“Unexpected Ministry”
A Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter, Year C
Acts 16:16-34 (with allusion to Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21)

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, IL
May 20, 2007

We are pretty good, here in the church, at saying that God works in mysterious ways. We tell one another that the love of Christ is broader than our minds can possibly imagine. We speak of a God whose will and ways are supposedly unknowable. We claim to believe that the winds of the Holy Spirit blow when and where and how they please. And yet, when we get outside of formal confessions and away from statements of what we think we should believe, most of the time we act as though God is under our control, living inside a box to which we have the key. We live with no room for the unexpected.

During my second year of seminary in Chicago, I participated in a unique experiment my school was attempting, an experiment in bringing our academic course work into closer conversation and relevance to the real lives of congregations in diverse settings throughout Chicago. As part of this program, I myself was working and worshipping among a predominately Puerto Rican UCC congregation on Chicago’s West Side. I was expecting to be challenged by working in a congregation very different from the ones I grown up in. I was expecting to be challenged in making connections between our studies and the churches we were working in. I was expecting to grow in my sense of myself as a pastor. I was expecting to struggle a bit as I worked with some community organizations the congregation belonged to in that inner city neighborhood. Certainly, many of those things happened; many of those challenges were there to be had. All that said, though, these were not the places where the greatest transformation happened. My eyes were opened the widest by the strife I did not foresee right there inside our classroom with and among my fellow classmates.

You see, the year we spent together in this experiment was the first time most of us had been in an academic environment where white people were in the minority. Of the fifteen students in the program that year, four of us were white, one of us was an international student from the Philippines, and ten of us were African American. The unfortunate reality is that this sort of situation just doesn’t happen in almost any graduate school in this country. And the yet more unfortunate reality is that, even in this environment, white privilege and white racism still reared their ugly heads. In the opening weeks of the year, we were asked by our professors—both white—to read a seemingly well-written book on the relationship between ethics and the scriptures. That is, seemingly well-written to those of us who were white. On the day we were to discuss the reading, it took almost an hour before the first of my black classmates found enough courage to break the tension that lingered in the air, so thick you could cut it with a knife. The moment was a story of hopes dashed and the pain of old battle wounds opened yet again. You could sum up my classmates thoughts as saying, ‘For the first time, we are in a place where we as African Americans are in the majority, and yet these white professors have assigned us a book that dismisses black liberation theology as a less-interesting example and hardly worthy of discussing at length.’ Or even more succinctly, ‘Yet again we have been downgraded, dismissed, ignored, thrown to the curb. How dare you?’ Still clinging to our unrecognized privilege, those of us who were white made feeble attempts to reclaim the book. ‘Well, yes, but aside from that, though, isn’t the overall point the author is making good?’ But the point wasn’t about the book. The point was about us. Were we too blind to see the reality of this community of people, too cold to care about their lifetime of pain and rejection?

Over the course of that year, that would not be the only painful conversation among the 15 of us. Somehow, though, I believe that through that year, through those experiences, I was being ministered to. I was having my eyes opened to truths previously unseen, my heart opened to realities previously unknown. Surely, words of judgment were given, and yet some gospel of grace was there too, as my classmates had the courage to walk with us as we finally learned how to walk with them.

I’m sure the jailer who kept watch over Paul and Silas did not expect to be ministered to by his captives. This jailer had the authority of the Roman Empire behind him. Moreover, this jailer had the literal keys to their prison cell, the power over whether Paul and Silas would stand or sit or walk or eat or drink. And yet, as William Willimon puts it, “Having the key to someone else’s cell does not make you free.” (Acts, Interpretation commentary series from John Knox Press) In fact, the jailer was certainly not free, as both he and we realize that his own life was at the mercy of the empire. Furthermore, no position of power makes us immune from the power of God to work through unexpected faces.

In times past, the established church was not immune from the Spirit of God calling it to stand against slavery and segregation, and is still today learning the riches of the gifts of the African American in our midst. In this time, the established church is not immune from the Spirit of God calling us to welcome and affirm lesbian and gay persons into the life of the church. And furthermore, we have just begun to see how this calling is pushing moderate and liberal Christians to new clarity about how we understand the Bible and what we believe the mission of the church to be. New voices will always call to us—to us as individuals, to the church, to our society—from some darkened prison cell with the possibility of life. The question seems to be whether we can open ourselves to a word of grace, a word of peace, a word of challenge, a word of compassion, a word of the Lord that sounds forth from outside whatever little box in which we’re trying to hold God.

This is a high calling, an honor, a gift, to open ourselves to the unexpected ministry we can receive from the Pauls and Silases in our midst. And yet, this is not the only way this story plays. Unexpected ministry is not only a gift for us to receive. Indeed, unexpected ministry is also the calling ever placed before us, the gift for us to do and give. If we’re trying to place ourselves in this story, we are not only the jailer, but we are also Paul and Silas, on a mission with the good news of the gospel to share with folks not expecting the gift we can offer them.

Paul and Silas speak a word of freedom and new life to two different people in this story. At the beginning of the passage today, we find them being followed by ‘fortune-telling girl’. Now, our scientific modern and post-modern minds might question this whole idea of her being possessed by some spirit or daemon—we might rather think of her as unbalanced or mentally ill—but regardless of the specific details of her condition, she is being used and abused. Her masters are using the spectacle of her condition as a way to make money. In calling the daemon out of the girl, Paul sets her free from the ability to be used in this way. Now, like what happens in many of the ministries we do as individuals and as a church, we don’t actually know what happened to the girl after Paul’s action. We don’t know if she remained a slave, perhaps to be treated even worse by her masters, or if maybe, just maybe, the budding Christian community in this town took her in. Likewise, we don’t know much about what may have happened to the jailer that Paul and Silas welcomed into the community of Christ. In both cases, though, a word was spoken, though, and a new possibility opened.

We here, this gathering of people known as Second Congregational United Church of Christ, we too have taken on the calling to be as Paul and Silas on our little corner in Rockford, speaking a word by which new possibilities open. And not only have we taken on this calling, but the ministries we do here, as individuals and together as the church, have all sorts of unexpected effects. Who of us can know what affect a caring phone call or a compassionate greeting could be having? How can we know today what life we may have opened up for the children and youth we serve through the Boys & Girls Club? Or perhaps even more unexpectedly, would you have guessed that the work we are doing as a congregation on clarifying our identity and mission, and improving our hospitality and welcome, and raising the vitality and centeredness of our worship, and becoming more intentional about scripture and mission-work and forming one another in faith is doing as much to improve our church’s youth ministry as anything we do at 4:30 on Sunday afternoons up on the 4th floor? At least that’s what some of the newest and most exciting research into congregations that are doing exemplary youth ministry is telling us. (You’ll hear more about this and other things from my recent time away in the coming weeks.)

Our whole reason for being is to invite people into God’s story of new possibilities in this world, to call out ‘daemons’ that keep people in bondage, to sing and pray until that final earthquake comes that will fling wide open every door of captivity and shake loose every chain of injustice. And just what is that story of God that opens new possibilities? Where do we find our authority to cast out the daemons of the world? What is that final earthquake that we await, and where comes our strength to sing and pray until it’s coming? That story, that authority, that earthquake, that strength is none other than the Christ who claimed us, like the jailer, in the waters of baptism. None other than the Risen One in whom God embraced us all even into the pain of death. None other than the One who came not to be served but to serve, whose coming again we await with the Spirit and the bride and everyone who hears. The infant One, the 12-year-old in the temple One, the healing One, the hunger-feeding One, the living-water-at-the-well One the table-turning-over One, the bread-of-life One, the crucified One, the Risen One, the reigns-and-prays-for-us One, the coming-again One.

As the last line of that old American hymn goes, “All things are mine since I am Christ’s—how can I keep from singing?” As the people so loved by this One, the people with the gift of the story of this One to tell, the people who already “trust in the Lord Jesus”, the people with the courage to be ministered to and the strength to minister—how, like Paul and Silas, can we keep from singing?


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Time Away, Part 1: Cleveland

All right, it seems like I should do something bloggy (reflective, etc.) about my recent time away. So, I shall attempt to do so in a few parts.

I spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, April 27-29, at the UCC "Church House" (our national offices) in Cleveland. I was there for a conference titled "Called Out for Good: Ministering in the United Church of Christ", which was a denomination-wide gathering of clergy (plus a couple seminarians) who are openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, same-gender-loving, queer, etc. (Random thought 1: clearly our vocabulary is quickly failing us, as seemingly we who fall in these categories keep adding more and more terms to the list, while those 'outside' the community can't even handle the acronymns GLBT or LGBT without a blank stare.)

Any gathering of people from across the denomination in the UCC is, shall we say, interesting--and predominately LGBT ones even more so. People who are clergy and others in lay leadership in this denomination bring such a diverse mix of social, theological, liturgical, etc. viewpoints, which is simultaneously a great gift and a great weakness of our church. I'm also never quite sure that such gatherings are truly "representative" of the overall character of our denomination, since these gatherings are populated by those people attracted to such gatherings. There does seem to be a growing (ever so slightly) number of us who, while remaining committed to the diversity and the issues of justice, are more 'traditional' or 'orthodox' in our liturgical and theological leanings. For instance, in a conversation about the denomination as a place where "all are welcome", I am no longer the only voice raising the questions "Well, yes, but what exactly are we welcoming them into? Simply welcoming them into a place where all are welcome? Or is there something deeper, broader, beyond that--i.e. the gospel of Jesus Christ (a gospel which is not only 'you are welcome here')?" (Thanks to my friend Greg Morisse for being the one to raise this!).

Overall it was a good gathering. I remain astounded at Phil Porter's skills in facilitating group process (Phil is the Minister of Liturgical Arts and Communications Coordinator at First Congregational Church of Berkeley). Set before him was a gathering of diverse people with no particular agenda for the time, and he was able to guide the group into focusing its time around a couple key areas of discussion and facilitate those discussions in a way that was peaceable, respectful, voice-enabling, and all-around just plain wonderful.

Two of our periods of discussion left me with some things I surely need to reflect upon. The first was a presentation of some research around churches that hire openly gay pastors, and the second was our group discussion around self-care (physical, spiritual, and relational), personal life, and integrity.

One of the areas of reflection for me coming out of both of these sessions is about 'outness'. In my life and ministry at Second Congregational, I would not say that I am "closeted", but I am also not fully "out", or at least not as 'out' as I could or probably should be. We made the decision at my hire that we would not put a "I am gay" statement in the introductory materials that went out to the congregation; part of this was a logical argument that we wouldn't put a "I am straight" statement if that were the case. Since I was not at the time in any sort of relationship (and still am not), there wasn't a particular "need", so to speak, to make this sort of broadcast announcement. However, I also sensed that there was still some worry over the tension/anxiety that arose when my openly-lesbian predecessor was called; her orientation was fully 'broadcast' so to speak at her hire, at least in part because she had a partner. This decision, though, was predicated on an understanding that I was/am not willing to be 'closeted', that if the topic arose I would be open, that if I was asked about, any respondent was to be open. Also, since I was 'out' on my profile, the search committee and the entire church council knew/knows my orientation. And, being a church with an active 'rumor mill', certainly many others know. It was also included on my biographical info, both at my hire and on new-member Sunday back in February when I officially joined the congregation, that I am a member of the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns (but again, referencing my random thought above, there are a lot of people who don't know what the LGBT acronym stands for).

Now some 8 1/2 months later, I find myself growing somewhat more uncomfortable with the current state of affairs. Who knows? Who doesn't? I said that I was going to be open about myself when the topic arose, or the appropriate context presented itself, but when/what is that appropriate context? Why is it that, for the most part, I have yet to find any of those 'appropriate' contexts myself--I'm drawing a blank as I try to think of a time that I have disclosed my orientation to people within the congregation whom I didn't know already knew. My senior pastor, Mike, says that he has mentioned it on at least a couple occassions, which is perfectly fine, but that doesn't address my own disclosure. When will the time arise when I can make a passing reference in a sermon, be it to an event I was at, a relationship I had, whatever? How do we get to that time? Is it acceptable if that time never comes? (Already know the answer to that one: NO).

I am not talking about this as someone who wants to be defined by this aspect of my identity. It's not like that, once I think everyone knows, I would make some reference in every sermon or began every sentence in a group gathering with "As a gay man, I ...". On the other hand, it is the case that this part of my identity has contributed significantly to my journey as a Christian and as a pastor. I have already had to overtly 'neuter' a sermon at least once, maybe twice, in my time here.

At this point, I don't know whether the decision we made back in August was the "right" one. At one level, it quite possibly could have been 'easier' to have just taken care of this whole issue back then. On the other hand, I am usually a believer in "working the system", and maybe that's what we're effectively doing here, working through the disclosure within the positive impression and relationships I have already created with the congregation, instead of having had my orientation set up as a "hurdle" to jump on the road to those relationships. But is my own comfort, integrity, and self-care ending up as the sacraficial lamb in the process of "working with the system"? On yet another hand, will people be curious/doubtful/mistrustful/upset about the motivations for not sharing this from the beginning?

Obviously, the bed is now made as it is, and we (I and the congregation) must lay in it. But as we go forward, I still am really puzzled as to what those so-called "appropriate" moments are. In the eyes of the heterosexist world, no moment is "appropriate". In the eyes of liberation, every moment is "appropriate". In the eyes of Second Con? Who knows!?!

At heart, the crux of all of this from a theological/pastoral lens comes down to this: How can I make the claim that the Church is supposed to be a place where we can be who we truly are, when I am still have worries and anxiety about the dynamics (whatever they may be) of people finding out who I truly am?