Faithful Work, Faithful Welcomes: Kim Davis, Aylan Kurdi, and all of us.

The following was preached as a sermon on September 6, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter, NH.

James 2:1-4, 14-17
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

When I started seminary, all the area churches came to campus to try to persuade the new students to worship with them. There happened to be a lot of churches from our denomination in town, and they always wanted seminarian members.

One of my classmates went to worship that Sunday at a church where most visitors did not stay for long. He found a pew somewhere in the middle of the congregation, and he sat down and got ready for worship to start. And that’s when a woman came down the aisle, and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Young man,” she said, “you are sitting in my pew! I’m going to have to ask you to move.”

Up until then I didn’t think that actually happened in real life, but it did. And my classmate, a very kind man, got up and gave her his seat. But that’s not the end of the story. Because the woman who had displaced him somehow found out that he was a seminarian visiting for the first time. And now she was embarrassed.

She came up to him and said, “Had I known you were a visiting seminarian, I would never have asked you to move!”

Today’s reading reminded me of that story. Like last week, we are in the Epistle of James, and this week we read this: “if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges?”

In other words, if anyone treats one stranger differently than another, especially over something as trivial as clothing, then that person is judging them. And it is not the place of a person, and especially of a Christian, to treat other children of God with anything less than dignity and respect.

That was the greater injustice of what happened to my classmate that day at that church. It’s one thing to be asked to move by someone who really likes their pew. It’s not what I hope would happen to a church visitor, but it’s the lesser of the problems here.

The greater was that the woman who did it was only sorry because she found out he was a seminarian, and she was embarrassed about the way she had treated a future member of the clergy, rather than the way she had treated a child of God.

The irony is that when it comes to making someone feel unwelcome in a church, seminarians and clergy are really your last concern. We’re coming back to some church regardless. We’re sort of a captive audience, no matter what you throw at us.

But what if he had been someone who for years had been trying to work up the courage to walk back into church? What if he had felt unwelcome before? What if he had felt so far from God that stepping into those doors had been an act of faith in and of itself? What then?

The way we treat people in our churches is just the start, though. It’s what we do in the world outside of our church doors that really matters. Because like I said last week, our actions speak louder than words. And our actions tell others what we really believe more than any statement of faith. And how we treat other people, particularly those who have nothing to give us, says the most of all.

I’ll tell you another seminary story. At my seminary we paid most of our tuition by working a few hours a week around campus. And one of the places most of us rotated through was the refectory, the seminary dining hall. And I almost always had the breakfast shift. I’d get up around 6am and sort of stumble over to the kitchen and serve eggs and bacon to the few of my classmates who got up in time.

And a few times a year the doctoral students, clergy members, would come to campus for intensive classes. They’d come to breakfast every morning, and mostly they were very pleasant. But one woman was not.

Each morning she’d work her way through the line barking orders at us. And each morning we’d fill her plate and roll our eyes and say nothing. But one morning a classmate of mine was in line before her. And he and I got to talking about an exam we had both just taken in a class.

I saw her eyes get big. And she said, “Are you students here?”

“Yes,” I told her, “Everyone who serves the food is a student here.”

Now she looked downright panicked. And all of a sudden she found her manners. Because now it occurred to her that she was being rude not just to a nameless server, but to her future colleague.

There’s an old saying that if you really want to know whether or not you should date someone, that them to dinner and watch how they treat the wait staff. I believe that. And that day in the refectory, I was pretty disillusioned about the clergy. And if seminary is dating, ordination is marriage. And I didn’t want to marry into that.

I didn’t want to be the sort of person who treated people differently based on what they could or could not do for me. I didn’t want it to matter whether or not they were like me. I wanted to love the way Jesus did, and does. I wanted to love my neighbor as myself. And I wanted to let that love to speak volumes about my faith. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.

But the reality is that I am.

I don’t mean to be. It’s not intentional, anyway. But, I am. And it only took two things this week to remind me of that fact.

The first was watching the county clerk in Kentucky who, despite court orders, will not grant same-sex couples marriage licenses. And let me say first, that I think she’s dead wrong. I don’t think she’s being persecuted, and I don’t think her legal consequences have anything to do with her faith. I think this has to do with her being a civil servant who is using her position to impose her religion on others, and to deny their civil rights. Couples like Heidi and me. Couples like others in this church.

And so when people started to talk about what a hypocrite she was, and how she’d been married four times herself, I joined in. And when they said they hoped she would rot in jail, well, I didn’t go that far, but I understood the anger because I know what it’s like to not have my own marriage recognized.

But when they started to talk about her clothes. And her appearance. And when they made fun of her for being from Kentucky…well, that’s when it got a little less funny. And that’s when I thought about what would happen if she walked into my church, and whether I would give up my pew to her, and see her for the child of God that she is.

That was my first reminder.

Drawn by Rafat al-Khateeb

Drawn by Rafat al-Khateeb

The second was this. A picture of a lifeless child on a beach in Turkey. A refugee. A child who was not rich. Who did not possess the right passport. Who was seen, at least in the abstract, as a burden on the society his family risked their very lives to join.

And the first thing I thought about were our kids here at the church. And how much I really love them. And how this boy was the same age as some of them. And I thought about how I’d do anything in my power to save one of our kids from harm. And I thought about how this boy needed someone to do that for him too.

And then I thought about all the children throughout the world like him. Children on rafts coming from Syria. Children crossing the border into our country. Children right here in Exeter. And I thought about how all Jesus said was that we should welcome the children. And how he never added any qualifiers about which children.

Every child needs someone. Every child needs more than someone. They need all of us. And they need our moral courage.

The fact so many were more outraged this week by the fact that a government employee was asked to do her job than they were by a child who lost his life tells us just how much we miss the point sometimes.

Because we can talk about our faith all day, but unless we are doing something because of that faith, unless we are changing the way we interact with the world, then it’s just lip service. Because James is right: Faith without works is dead

James asks us, “What good is it… if you say you have faith but do not have works?…If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

What good is it? What good is faith if it doesn’t change the world? What use is it if it only comforts us? What’s the point if we only pay attention on Sunday morning? If that’s the sort of faith we aspire to, faith on life support, then it’s time to let it die.

Because that’s not faith at all.

But if that’s not what we are looking for, if that’s not what we think God wants for us, the good news is that there is a better way. But it’s going to take a little work. And it’s going to take a little moral courage.

Scripture tells us that God is “our refuge and our strength”. And we often repeat that. We believe it. But we can’t just believe it for ourselves.

And so here is our faithful work. It is to fling open wide the doors of our church. Yes, our literal downstairs doors, but even more so the doors of our hearts. It is to welcome everyone in. And it is to offer them our pews, and to deny a seat to no one.

I believe God gives us strength for the work our faith requires of us. And I believe God uses us to give refuge to the world. Refuge, because the world is filled with refugees both in the literal and spiritual sense. And they are all fleeing the same hardness of the world. And they are all hoping to find more than just hardness in our hearts. They are hoping to find people of compassion. People of mercy. People of faith.

The name of that child was Aylan Kurdi. And I hope Aylan would have found a pew here. And the name of that clerk is Kim Davis. And I hope Kim would find a pew here. And the name of that woman who kicked the seminarian out of her pew, and the one who was rude to the kitchen staff…well, I don’t know their names. But I hope they would find a pew here. I hope this, because I hope that I, with my imperfect faith, would find a pew here too.

Yes, faith without works is dead. But faithful work…the sort of work that intentionally opens the doors to all, and treats each one with dignity? That work brings new life to the world. And to us all. And there’s always room for more. Amen?

Of Maine and Two Marriages: Lessons from a Grandmother I Never Knew

My grandmother was born in Portland, Maine, the daughter of Italian immigrants. She grew up in a Roman Catholic parish there that ministered to the immigrants and their families. The church was the center of my grandmother’s community, and a foundation of the family.

As a young woman she met a soldier stationed in Portland. He was from a family with deep New England roots and Protestant faith. They fell in love, and my grandparents were married in 1936.

Not long after the marriage my grandmother went to speak with the priest at her parish. He condemned her marriage, and her husband’s faith. He told her that her marriage was not real. And then he gave her an ultimatum: unless you raise your children in the Catholic Church, you will go to hell.

That story rippled down through the generations. My mother and her siblings were not raised in the Catholic Church, and neither was I. It took me years to understand exactly what that told me about my grandmother. The fact that a young, Italian-American girl in the 1930’s stood up to an authority figure whom she had been taught held the very keys to heaven and hell tells me all that I need to know about her, and about the courage one must sometimes have to stand up for love.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Maine and marriage this year. I’ve been thinking about it because for the first time in American history, marriage equality for same-sex couples might be won in a state by a popular vote.
I have married same-sex couples who reside in Maine, but who have to leave the state on their wedding day in order to have their marriage legally acknowledged. I have seen how the lack of legal recognition of their marriage impacts everything from their taxes to their parental rights to their children. Their life is made unduly harder by the biases of others. And, unlike in the case of my grandparents, it extends beyond church walls and brings judgement and injustice into their very homes.

I believe religious institutions have every right to make their own decisions about whom they will marry. But I don’t believe religious institutions have the right to impose them on others; particularly when we are talking about civil, and not religious, marriage. I also believe that more and more religious institutions will start to see people doing exactly what my grandmother did: walking out the church doors because they trust love, their own or their friends’, more than threats and judgements.

Earlier this year my partner and I went to Portland and stood in front of the parish where my grandmother grew up. I was excited to be in a place that had formed her childhood. And then I remembered this story. I realized that the conversation with her priest that had so shaped her life, and my mother’s, and my own, had likely been in this place. And I felt sad and angry for all the pain that condemnation of her love had caused her.

I never met my grandmother. She died of cancer seven years before I was born, with a rosary under her pillow. She said the prayers of her faith every night. But my grandmother never returned to the religious institution of her youth. She lost her church, but she didn’t lose her faith. I find that kind of faith remarkable. I wish that I had known her.

I wish too that I had been able to send her an invitation to my own wedding this fall, just two weeks after the vote will be taken in Maine. My mother assures me she would have come, and she would have loved it.

I imagine that if she were there, voting results in hand, we would either celebrate the prophetic stand of her home state for love. Or we would mourn that they weren’t quite there yet. I hope it would be the former, but if it were the latter I imagine I’d know what she would tell me: choose your love. Don’t choose the judgement. And don’t let anyone tell you this marriage is not real.

The “Religious Liberty” quiz on Huffington Post, and why I wrote it.

Dear friends,

Over the past few days my blog has seen an increase in traffic driven by my latest post on Huffington Post’s religion section. (Found here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/how-to-determine-if-your-religious-liberty-is-being-threatened-in-10-questions_b_1845413.html ) That post made the leap from the religion page to the front page, has been shared nearly 5,000 times on Facebook (edited: now about 12,000 times), and has been picked up by other sites. Thank you all for the shares and for your blog visits, emails, tweets, and words of encouragement. I’m humbled.

I wrote the piece on my iPhone last week while sitting watching the Republican National Convention with my partner. That is not to say that this is an anti-Republican post. Not at all. (I know some wonderfully inclusive Republicans and some of the rhetoric at the DNC on this frustrated me just as much.) It’s just to say that was the occasion for its writing.

You see, my partner and I are marrying one another this November at her UCC church in Boston. We are blessed by the fact that our marriage will be recognized legally in both our state of residence and the state in which it is performed. More importantly, it will be recognized by our church. It will not, however, be recognized by the federal government. The question of whether it will be soon, and whether it will be in more states, is causing an increase in calls of “religious oppression” from anti-gay religious folks.

Getting married two weeks after the presidential election, in a year when debate over equal marriage is more divisive than ever, adds a whole other layer to the stress of wedding planning. It means that every quip about equal marriage feels like a referendum on your own upcoming marriage. (And really, between the catering and the invitations, I already have more than enough to think about.)

That’s why watching the RNC, every slight about “real marriages” and “real families” cut us to the quick. And every reference to “religious liberty” used to deny my partner and I the rights we deserve just offended me. My partner and I are religious people who love God. We love the church. And we love Christ, who taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. But the fact that our neighbors, and our Christian brothers and sisters, were claiming that they were the oppressed ones here, was not just offensive; it was ludicrous.

My partner and I want basic rights. And our basic rights do not intrude on anyone’s religious liberty. How that has become so convoluted, I don’t know. But those who would use religion to claim they are being victimized by the rights of others, are being intellectually, and religiously, dishonest. No one is forcing churches to marry gay couples. Any clergy member will tell you that they are legally free to deny marriage to any couple for any reason with impunity. They know that, but they spread false fear to their communities in an effort to deny the rights of others. Meanwhile, our own church, which blesses our marriage, is being denied equal legitimacy under the law by the actions of these religious groups who attempt to withhold legal recognition from the marriages other religious groups bless.

So here we were, sitting in our living room, watching politicians say that the marriage of a minister and a seminarian would destroy religious liberty in America. And it’s so offensive, so painful, and just so, so false. This is the stuff that used to make me want to drink. Now it just makes me want to fight harder for my rights, and the rights of my partner, and the rights of all of us…because, gay or straight, this is about all of us.

That’s how the quiz was born. Because it’s important for the ones who have oppressed others for so long to understand that they, in fact, are not being oppressed. I know what oppression feels like. I grew up gay in the Bible belt. I was bullied in the name of religion. That’s not what “religious liberty” is about. THAT is oppression. And I’m thankful that, finally, my own religious liberty is being taken seriously by more and more of my fellow citizens. I hope the quiz helps more to be able to realize what “religious liberty” really means.

God bless you all.

Rev. Emily C. Heath

The Religious Right (Side of History)

For Christians in the mainline Protestant denominations, this has been an interesting summer. First, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected an amendment which would have opened the church up to blessing same-sex marriages. Then, less than a week later, the Episcopal Church approved a new liturgy to bless same-sex unions and also affirmed the ministry of transgender clergy.

 

For the rest of us mainline folks (members of the United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Lutherans, Disciples, and others) it has been both fascinating and heart-wrenching to watch. Regardless of the outcome, the emotion has been clear. After the PCUSA vote, youth cried on the floor of the General Assembly. The day after the the Episcopal vote, one diocese walked out.

 

Many speculate that some mainline denominations may be headed for an ideological schism. The narrow margin of the Presbyterian decision, just 30 votes, is one indication of just how split that denomination is on major issues of inclusion and Biblical interpretation. Other denominations face similar quandaries. It’s clear that mainline Christians of all stripes are at a watershed.

 

It helps to remember that we have been here before, and more than once.

 

I was ordained in the PCUSA (before having my own departure over LGBT inclusion and becoming UCC). I was always struck by the fact that the denomination had split in two during the Civil War over slavery. The same happened in many of the other major churches of the day. For some, the split was temporary. Methodists rejoined one another in 1939. It took the Presbyterians until 1983. Some never reunited. (Which is one reason the North is filled with American Baptist congregations, while Southern Baptists prevail in the South.)

 

You would think American mainliners would have learned their lesson, but they didn’t. Further splits occurred over the ordination of women, desegregation, Biblical inerrancy, and more. And now, the splits are coming over LGBT inclusion.

 

We’ve known this for years. One of the reasons LGBT inclusion has not yet occurred is that we are so afraid of what a schism will mean. We want to preserve the body of Christ, because that is what we are called to do. But, if we are honest, we also want to remain relevant. Relevance is the catch-phrase in the shrinking church, and a denomination half its size is seen as even more irrelevant.

 

Except, here’s the rub: size does not determine relevance. Doing the right thing does.

 

When I was in the PCUSA I often heard straight allies decline to push harder for LGBT rights for fear it would “split the church”. No one wanted that, but the reality was that the church was already splitting. LGBT people, and their families and friends, were walking out the door. This was true of many churches, and the irony was that each time they failed to do the right thing, the prophetic thing, for fear of losing relevance, they lost it even more.

 

When Jesus told his disciples to go out two by two he gave them clear instructions: Preach a prophetic truth.  If you are rejected, if your message is not heard, move on. Shake the dust from your feet and keep moving.

 

I don’t think Jesus was telling his disciples to not care about the people who rejected them. I don’t think he was saying “give up hope that they will change their minds”. I think he was saying this: sometimes you won’t get everyone one board, but the train has to keep moving forward. Otherwise it will derail.

 

We talk a lot about the power of the religious right to negatively influence the fate of LGBT civil rights, but we are talking about the wrong religious right there. What LGBT people need now is not more of the religious right. We need more religious and on the right side of history. We need more Christians ready to stand up for the right thing no matter what, even if it means some won’t follow them. We need religious folks ready to shake the dust of fear and rejection off their feet and follow Jesus anyway. People who are willing to take the big risks their faith demands no matter the cost.

 

This will not be the last issue to divide the church. Give it thirty or forty years and something else will come along. By that point the country as a whole will have evolved and moved on and non-inclusion of LGBT people will be an embarrassing chapter in our history, just like all the others through the years. My hope is the mainline church will be re-united by then, but history tells us it may well not be.

 

That’s okay. Because the mark of faithfulness is not found in our membership numbers. It’s not found in a commitment to an non-controversial faith that never makes anyone uncomfortable. It’s found in how well we follow Christ, who taught us to love one another and work for justice. The only fate worse than schism for the church is being lukewarm when it comes to issues of justice. Jesus never accepted us being lukewarm. For those of us who want to be standing on the religious right side of history, that’s a good reminder.

The Episcopal Church, Equal Marriage, and Religious (il)Literacy

Today the Episcopal Church voted to approve a liturgy which blesses same-sex unions. It’s a great step forward for equality, and a time for thanksgiving. It’s also another opportunity to watch the way that stories about mainline churches are often mis-reported by the media.

The headlines today say the Episcopal Church is the first maichurch denomination to approve same-sex marriage. That’s wrong on two counts. First, the Episcopal Church is explicitly avoiding the use of “marriage” in describing these same-sex rites. Second, the United Church of Christ, a denomination roughly the same size and with as deep a heritage as the Episcopal Church, affirmed marriage equality in 2005 and calls all unions (gay and straight) “marriages”.

This is just the latest example of reporters,including religion reporters, getting it wrong. Last year, for example, the ordination of the “first out LGBT Presbyterian minister” was heralded in religion sections everywhere. For the sizeable number of PCUSA clergy who had been ordained when they were also out, this was surprising news.

So why do journalists who often pride themselves on accuracy so often get it wrong?

I think it points to a greater issue: the lack of mainline voices in the public arena. Members of the religious right have co-opted the public square and professed to speak for all Christians. Whether it’s birth control, LGBT rights, or the role of women, they’ve somehow convinced the news industry, and those who rely on it, that they are the voice of Christians everywhere. In doing so, we in the mainline have become less relevant, less well-known, and less distinguishable.

So, mainliners, how do we change that?

No sermon from me this week, but….

So, why no sermon from me? Because I didn’t preach this weekend. Instead Heidi Ward filled the pulpit at my church. Heidi is a second-year seminarian, a student pastor, and in the discernment process for ordination in the UCC. She also happens to be the woman I am marrying this fall. So, you know, I’m partial to her.

This was Heidi’s first time preaching at my church, and our first time leading worship together. It was something that came up casually. Heidi asked if she could preach, and my folks said “sure”. It wasn’t a “political act” for us. There was no “agenda”. It was just Heidi giving me a week off from peaching. But I didn’t realize what a holy act that would be for us. But as we vested together, I began to understand how meaningful it all was, both for us as partners but also as LGBTQ people of faith. It’s something not many LGBTQ clergy ever have the chance to do.

I was not ordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC). I was originally ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I love the PCUSA, and they are making some movement on the inclusion of LGBTQ people, but two years ago I made the decision to leave and come to the UCC. I’ve known others who have left Methodist, Catholic, and Baptist churches to serve in the UCC. We haven’t come because the UCC is perfect (though I believe it’s pretty great). We’ve come in large part because it was the one place that would embrace us as who we are and embrace our families as well.

When I was single and a PCUSA minister considering leaving for the UCC I wavered a bit. I couldn’t decide whether to make the jump, or to stay and fight for full inclusion. My dad helped me to make my decision. He asked me, “You want a partner some day, right?” I said yes. He replied simply, “Well then it’s not fair to her to stay in a place where she won’t be respected.”

A year and a half after switching my ordination, I asked Heidi to marry me. Now we are planning a wedding and getting ready for a life together. A life that includes serving openly as a clergy couple. I’m acutely aware that had I stayed in the PCUSA I would now be navigating the still-uncertain rules about same-sex marriages in the Presbyterian Church. I’d be having to find a clergy member willing to marry us and a church willing to let us use the sanctuary. I’d be worried that my wedding could become a test case in a church judicial proceeding. The same would be true for a clergy member in many other denominations. Instead, Heidi and I have simply reserved her UCC church for our wedding date, and asked a UCC minister we both respect to officiate. We’ve invited many of our clergy friends. We are so thankful we can celebrate this day with our greater church community.

But as much as I’m looking forward to that day in November, I’m so aware that what happened last Sunday was even rarer. If you had asked me when I was ordained whether I’d ever be able to stand and lead worship in a church I pastored with my partner, I’d probably have told you no. But it turns out, in the end, that’s not as far-fetched as it seemed. For that I thank my congregation. And my denomination. And especially my partner. But most of all God, who is still speaking, and who is doing something new in the church. I pray more churches will listen to that still speaking voice, because I hope every LGBTQ couple, clergy or lay, gets to feel that kind of welcome at least once.

New blog at Huffington Post: Separation of Church and Santorum

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. … To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up.” –Rick Santorum

Rich Santorum’s quote about Pres. John F. Kennedy’s speech on the separation of church and state has received a tremendous amount of airplay this week. Even if you remove that last viral line, it’s a strong pronouncement of Santorum’s displeasure with the limits imposed on religious institutions in the public arena. It’s enough to make the ears of any person of faith who thinks differently than Santorum perk up.

Speaking as a pastor in a mainline Christian denomination (you know, one of the ones Santorum says is in “shambles”) I’m surprised to find myself in some agreement with one part of his quote. I also believe that it is “antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country … to say that people of faith have no role in the public square.” And yet, I would suspect Santorum and I have very different ideas of what that means.

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