Sunday, July 18, 2010

Dancing in the Temple: A Morning with Gene Robinson

Over the years, I've listened to numerous sermons by and interviews with Bishop Gene Robinson and have read much of his book, In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God. Since his election and consecration as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese in New Hampshire in 2003, many millions of people here in this country and around the world have come to know this man as a friend, a faithful servant, and a Spirit-filled priest - something which his friends in New Hampshire have known for quite some time.

Today, I was privileged to experience that faith and friendship first-hand when I attended two services at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington. The Bishop had been invited to participate in the church's Summer in the City - Outstanding Preacher Series after the church's senior minister, Dean Snyder, had heard him preach as part of the 2009 Lenten series at a church in Memphis. (As Snyder noted, his response after hearing Bishop Robinson's sermon was, "Oh, my Lord! An Episcopalian who can preach a sermon!" - a line that got a tremendous laugh at both services.)

Both services - which were geared for very different interests, the first a more praise-and-worship style for the younger crowd and children, and the second more traditional - were very crowded. More importantly, I was so overjoyed to see a tremendous amount of diversity in the congregation; young, old, families, singles, black, white, gay, straight - perhaps the most comprehensive cross-section of the community I've ever seen in any Sunday service. The music ranged from the spiritual "Plenty Good Room" to an arrangment of a piece by Gustav Holst, and performances by the nine-person Jubilate choir, the 21-person chancel choir, the pianist/organist, and a guest flutist. All in all, something to appeal to everyone.

The Bishop's sermon was based on the two readings he had selected for today: Acts 3:1-10, which tells of the healing of the lame man at the Temple by Peter and John; and Luke 4:16-30, which tells of the first time Jesus spoke at the synagogue in Nazareth and was both admired for his ability to preach and reviled because he pointed out that Elijah and Elisha were sent by God not to the Jews, but to Zarephath in Sidon and Namaan the Syrian. He told all of us that the passage from Acts should be the one that speaks to everyone in the LGBT community - just as the lame man was prohibited from entering the Temple because of his infirmity, the LGBT community knows what is like to be barred at the door and prohibited from entering the sanctuary. And just as the man was healed by Peter and John and allowed at that point to walk into the Temple ("dancing in the temple"), those who have been discriminated against by many in today's world have also heard the call of God and now know what it means to celebrate in the center of the church.

As he said, the church is in chaos right now - which is to be expected when there is any sort of change, particularly in the area of the acceptance of the LGBT community over the past 20 years (and after millenia of the status quo). When a child goes to his or her parent to come out, there is a bit of chaos as the parents take it in and determine how to react; Robinson used this as a lead-in to his own situation, which he described as going to his father - the Archbishop of Canterbury - and saying, "Dad, I'm gay." Just as in the family, there is similar chaos as the church determines how to respond (although he feels that it is by and large over, and that we'll gradually see that we're moving on).

The Bishop also talked about the disparity between those who preach fear - the televangelists who use words like "abomination" and "Satan" to describe the LGBT community and are rewarded with increasing contributions - and others "who preach the limitless love of God and get into trouble". He said, "When I ordain deacons, I tell them that I expect them to get into some Gospel trouble. If they're not in trouble, I wonder if it is the Gospel that they are preaching." Later in the sermon, the Bishop said, "At the end of the day, we need to decide if we're going to be admirers of Jesus - or disciples. And Jesus doesn't need more admirers."

The question-and-answer session held after the second service was also very good, and the Bishop was very honest and straightforward in his answers (although as he pointed out, "Now you can see why I can't necessarily talk about this in the pulpit."). It is worth noting at this point that the clergy and congregation at Foundry have been in deep discussion throughout the summer over how they react to Washington's decision to allow same-sex marriage; Reverend Snyder said that the rules of the Methodist Church prohibiting the blessing of same-sex rites on church property or by Methodist clergy are in direct conflict with the constitution of the Methodist Church, which call for service to all regardless of race, status, background, or financial position. Snyder said that he finds himself in a position of being unable in good conscience to continue abiding by the rules of the Methodist Church, and that while the congregation as a whole must vote to determine how they will respond they should do so without worrying about getting him into trouble ("Whether or not I get into trouble is between me and Jesus."). Snyder went on to say that it may come to a point where he must continue his ministry outside of Foundry if he is to continue honoring his conscience.

Because of this, many of the questions directed at the Bishop concerned how the church should respond if they are punished for going against the Methodist rules, whether there are similar circumstances with any congregation in the Episcopal Church, and why the Washington-area clergy - indeed, churches around the country - are the ones speaking most loudly against the LGBT community. The Bishop, response to the variuos questions he received, responded in part: (1) if Foundry is precluded from a relationship with the Methodist Church because of the vote of the congregation, and if Snyder is stripped of his certification/pastoral license, they should continue paying their dues, continuing participating in the life of the national church, and continue speaking up - because of their importance nationally, they should serve as a beacon and speak up; ultimately, another voice at another church will speak up, and it will continue to the point where "the trickle will become a waterfall"; (2) as he looks at those who are critical of those of the LGBT community and who insist on taking an "us versus them" approach, the Bishop wonders, "Is there not as much diversity in the straight community as there is elsewhere? I think people focus on homosexuality so they don't have to focus on themselves."; (3) "Death is not the worst thing; not living your life is the worst thing."; and (4) in dealing with Peter Akinola and the other African bishops who feel that the Bishop's consecration allowed Satan to enter the church, he said, "My job is to love them; how I am treated in return is not important."

At some point during the day, Robinson mentioned some of the controversy going on at the time of his election, and how there was an investigation of false charges that put off the final vote. While these charges were being examined, and he and his family were sequestered, a friend gave him a small piece of calligraphy which read, "Sometimes, God calms the storm - and sometimes, God allows the storm to rage and calms the child." Gene Robinson's visit today was to me an example of God calming "we children" by allowing us to witness the life and example of another of his children. I don't think anyone in that room would argue that we were the recipients of a tremendous gift indeed.


julieunplugged said...

You did such a good job of narrating this experience! I was especially touched by the comment that he questions if you are preaching the Gospel if you don't get into some trouble!

I also loved the idea of discipleship versus admirers.

Finally, calming the storm and other times calming the child! Wow! I'll be thinking about that one for sure. So nice to read your evolving views on this topic over the years too. And, natch, you finagled a way to be in a photo with him. Ha!

Thanks Matt.

Kansas Bob said...

Calming the storm or calming the child - I loved that!

margaretm said...

Thanks for writing about this experience! I would have loved to have been there, such an important time. Something to help me keep on hoping...

Doug Hansen said...

Thanks for taking the time to share your experience with us. I'm sorry I could not be there. As for gay marriage, I pay taxes and the Constitution does not mandate the creation of marriage for any couple, so if the federal government has done this for heterosexuals, they should also for homosexuals. Time marches on and hopefully things will continue to improve.

Dad said...

It's so good to see you writing here again... Well done.