No Rights

Today we celebrate the feast of Florence Li Tim-Oi, the first woman ordained priest in the Anglican Communion; she served during World War II during a time of duress in Asia.  Because of the controversy of her ordination, she resigned her license after the end of the war.  I want to consider why our church ordains women and what that means for who we believe God to be, and what we believe to be the vocation–or job–of every Christian.

Having been raised–theologically-speaking–in the house of Stanley Hauerwas at Duke, “rights” language makes me very uncomfortable.  It’s not that women have a “right” to serve just like men do, as priests–none of us, as followers of Jesus, has a right to do anything, so the argument goes.  What I mean to say is that when we were drowned in the waters of baptism and raised up out of them by the grace of God, all our rights were washed away–the only claim that any baptized person has is our belonging to God in Christ–we follow the lifestyle that leads to the cross.  It’s not about us as individuals anymore, it’s about what’s best for God’s kingdom and God’s people.  Our only right is to pick up our cross and walk in Jesus’ footsteps.

Looked at this way, women ought to be ordained and to serve as priests, bishops, and whatever else in the church because God gifts both women and men with the sorts of talents that are useful for church leadership, development, evangelism, and the like.  Part of my frustration growing up was that my parents told me that I should use the gifts God had given me–which were pretty clearly gifts for leadership, teaching, and speaking in public–and my church was telling me that I couldn’t do those sorts of things because I was a girl.  An early Christian and theologian said, “that which God has not assumed, God cannot redeem”–what was important about Jesus–God in the flesh–was not that he was male, but that he was human.  God assumed humanity, became a person, not God-became-male.

So if God doesn’t care if you are a man or a woman, as the passage in Galatians says today (3:23-28), I wonder if God cares if you are ordained or not.  In the Gospel (Luke 10:1-9) lesson, Jesus sends out 70 of the people–probably all men–who had been following him around, instructing them to try out this ministry-and-evangelism thing.  Perhaps they were like itinerant preachers, or circuit-riders, the way that Methodism spread in the United States, but I suspect they may have been more like immigrant workers, or bi-vocational evangelists–people who did “normal” work, but who shared their faith in the God who became a person because of his love for each human.

My uncle was visiting this week, and one morning he told me about his work at a major home-improvement store.  He talked about how he builds relationships with customers, whether they are regulars or someone he just interacts with for 30 seconds or a few minutes.  When someone is looking for a realtor key holder (those cases that have a code to punch in that holds the key–i don’t know what those are called otherwise!), he shows them where they are, but if they seem open to it, he asks them what it’s for, and as they start to have a conversation, he helps them think through the implications of the change they’re making to their home (whether it’s for security, or convenience, or whatever).  Even though he’s just a “normal” worker, he reaches out to the people he comes in contact with and walks with them in their lives, if only for a few minutes, to help them know they’re not alone, to offer his expertise and wisdom, and to help them to make the best decision for their project.

Every Christian in every job is called to this kind of work.  God came to earth in Jesus to prove how much he wants to know each of us; Jesus didn’t run away even from being murdered on a cross to show us that he loves us more than he loves anything else, even life; God raised Jesus from the dead to reveal that he is the most powerful force in the universe.

As baptized Christians, we come forward to receive the Eucharist in order to be healed and be filled with that same power; when we allow God to be active in our lives–giving up our “rights,” he does more through us than we could know or imagine on our own.  God has called each and every one of us to be missionaries for the sake of his kingdom and his people, to go out as sheep in the midst of wolves, trusting in his will.  We are primarily identified by our status as Christians, not as men or women or as priests.  We’ve all been given a vocation in baptism, and that is to grow in relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and to introduce others to Him.  Amen.

What is Your Name? – All Saints’ Sunday – Trinity Cathedral

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“22 ‘Blessed are you when people… cast out your name as evil because of the Son of Man… 26‘Woe to you when all men speak well of you.” (Luke 6:22, 26; NKJV)

Today, the celebration of All Saints’ Day, is a moment to consider our baptism.  In some of the services today, babies will come to be baptized, and when they are, their families will be told, “Name this child!”  My own middle name is for my great-grandmother, who died in May of this year; I think of her especially on this celebration of All Saints’ Day, as many of us remember people who have died in the last year who were holy beacons of Jesus’ love.  I’ve noticed since moving to the South that down here, many more people name their children after family members.  I even know a family who boasts something like seven generations straight of women with the same name.  Names still mean something down here, and that makes the name that God gives us all the more sweet.  The most important name that any of us could be called is “Christian.”  “Christian” means “little Christ,” or perhaps more colloquially, “imitator of Jesus.”

God is fond of giving people new names.  In the Old Testament, God changes people’s names at profoundly significant moments in their lives.  Just a few weeks ago, we heard the moment when Jacob’s name was changed to Israel.  Do you remember?  The reading from Genesis told us, “‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.'” (Gen. 32:28; NKJV) God changed Jacob’s name to Israel the night before Jacob was to meet his brother again for the first time in decades.  But to understand what’s significant about this name change, we should understand what the names mean: “Jacob” means “trickster,” and stories about tricksters are common throughout ancient literature.  Think about the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, or the Hare in the parable about racing with the tortoise.  These characters don’t make friends, they are scrappy, and they have to stick to themselves because their only way of getting ahead in the world is at another person’s expense.  Jacob did that to his brother Esau, cheating his older sibling out of the blessing and riches which were meant for him; later, Jacob did it again to his uncle, stacking the deck so to speak, to make sure the sheep in his herd were the most hardy.  But here in Genesis 32, Jacob’s name changes–God comes near to Jacob and transforms him.  God changes Jacob so completely into a new person that his name can’t even be “trickster” anymore.  It’s changed to Israel, which means, “God fights.”  You might think of it as something like, “God fights for you”–I imagine that’s what Israel hears any time his name is said after it changes that fateful night.  God loves Jacob just as he is, trickster and all, but God loves Jacob too much to leave him that way.  God transforms Jacob, and gives him a new name with a new identity.  He’s no longer a “trickster,” but a person for whom “God fights.”

This happened to Paul, too, in the New Testament–the writer of those letters starts out with the name “Saul,” but when he meets Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus tells Saul that he’s got a new job to do now and it’s such a change that he needs a new name to go with it.  That’s how Saul becomes Paul.  We could think about it this way: Saul starts out with a sensible life–he’s a Pharisee, well-respected, super smart, the jock, the popular kid, the A+ student–he’s the top of everything, the wonderkid.  God comes along and stands in his path one day, and the great reputation that Saul has, his trophies he’s won and collected–this life Saul’s built–it comes undone and is remade by God into something that doesn’t make sense at all to Paul’s old friends.  Being transformed by the God we meet in the person of Jesus Christ means that we do strange things, like giving someone who’s cold our new, fresh, warm coat, not the old, smelly, ratty one.  We relentlessly forgive the person who continues to stand us up when we’ve made a date, or keeps hanging up on us when we call on the phone.  No matter how many times someone asks for a coat or a blanket, and no matter how many times someone hangs up on us, we give and we forgive one more time, every time.  These actions make no sense unless Jesus Christ is Lord; unless he is God incarnate.

No one is naturally generous or forgiving; developing holy habits takes lots of hard work, and it’s a hopeless pursuit unless the person is utterly devoted to the God revealed in the person of Jesus.  Every saint we celebrate today recognized God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and committed their lives to that truth.  I heard someone say once, “People who are saints don’t know it until God himself tells them.”  Saints’ lives are transformed by the truth of Jesus; their first name is “Christian.”  God has re-named them.

Today we celebrate All Saints.  There are hundreds of faithful Christians who have passed through these doors, many we remember as living hard, holy lives devoted to Jesus.  There are thousands more, through the last 200 years at Trinity, and millions throughout the world, who has been called saints by God because of their holy lives, oriented completely toward Jesus.  We do not remember, nor could we ever know, all their names.  But God has recognized them, and that is the only lasting remembrance.

After these buildings crumble and the plaques are tarnished, after the communion kneelers disintegrate and the endowment runs out, though our names and the names these parents give their children as they are baptized today will disappear and be forgotten by future generations, may we so fight to live lives that only make sense in the sight of Jesus’ resurrection; that our reward may be God remembering our name when we see him face to face one day.