Safely in Exile

Safely in Exile

Christmas II A
Trinity Church, San Francisco
3 January 1999
The Rev. Dr. Bonnie Ring

Warned in a dream to flee Israel, Joseph took Jesus and his mother to Egypt where they lived SAFELY IN EXILE. Most of us have known exile. We are either exiles in our own land, set apart from the majority; or we have found safety and comfort in a new place or society separate from that of our ancestors. A lot of factors result in exile. When it prevails, we need to identify the cause or source of our separation as well as the nature of the sanctuaries of safety and acceptance that we find.

Let's look first at the causes of separation. The Israelites, of whom Jeremiah speaks, were enslaved by the victorious Babylonians. The healthy ones were driven from their homeland to live out their lives in servitude among the Babylonians. People carried into exile are people without an identity. Living on the edge, they often lose hope. Joseph, on the other hand, chose to flee, after he was warned of the danger to his newborn child! Joseph's experiences had prepared him. He already had encountered multiple doses of inhospitality: when marriage to Mary was the only way to save her from death by stoning, when the census mandated a trek to Bethlehem even though Mary was about to deliver her first child and again, when there was no decent housing in which to birth the babe.

Think of your own circumstances. Was it just one event or one person who necessitated your departure? Or, were there a series of events that told you the time had come to seek your Egypt and find a place of safety or welcome or both?

From what or whom have you been alienated or estranged? From whom are you cut off?

Some will answer parents;
some, brothers and sisters;
some, a whole generation.
Some will think of former friends whose values and life styles are so different and restricting, there is no room for variance.

Some will name churches or denominations whose arms are not as wide as God's and whose doctrines, disciplines and expectations not only define membership but also delimit it.

A few months ago, I met with our Lay Eucharistic Ministers, and Healers. We talked about their ministries at Trinity. It became clear that some of us were feeling deeply wounded by the Lambeth declaration, that homosexual practice is incompatable with Scripture. Some of us were outraged that the Good News of Jesus, that we are all loved and lovable as children of God, was no longer the basic and prevailing view of the Anglican Church. We were not quieted and reassured by the oasis found within the diocese of California.

In fact, gay and lesbian clergy throughout the communion have been alerted and alarmed. If Lambeth had had any real power, the majority would have expelled all gay and lesbian clergy. Instead, the majority merely stipulated they "could not advise legitimizing the ordination of homosexuals," even those in committed unions. These are signs, my friends. And, they are not good signs!

Surely, this is a last ditch attempt to stop the clock and go backward, to the time when neither women nor gays and lesbians had an equal place in the church. It is my hope and prayer that that last ditch effort will produce an overwhelming shift toward an all-embracing inclusiveness that welcomes everybody: young and old, rich and poor, straight and gay, male and female and people of every color, tribe and nation! What I dread, however, is that it is a sign that the gospel is not safe in the hands of the Church! If the gospel is not safe, just like the Christ child was unsafe in Bethlehem, we'd better act now or head toward Egypt!

I don't need to convince you that the church needs to embrace all people. You already hold those beliefs! But, what about all the other churches? Especially the ones that are careful to consider gays, lesbians and straight women for full time church positions and then, just as carefully, delete them from the lists of finalists. Or those who do not care if the traditional language of the Book of Common Prayer consistently excludes women. These are the things that alienate me and press me to speak my truth in wider circles in an attempt to convert the ignorant and reach out to other outsiders.

I have been a priest of the Episcopal Church for six years. The most I have ever been paid was $250.00 per month; and that was a training stipend paid by this diocese during my diaconal year. Otherwise, I have been an unpaid volunteer. At first, I regarded volunteer status as a blessing. I could preside at an altar and occasionally preach without all the administrivia that Rectors put up with. But in six years, I have seen the signs. The signs have been foreboding ones of limited acceptance. All my training in Adult Education, in Pastoral Care and Counseling and in Theology and Scripture hold no value in this Episcopal Church! Why? Because I have been twice divorced and I am in a long term, loving and committed relationship with a woman that was deemed "ecclesiastically inappropriate" because I did not first obtain the bishop's approval or permission.

In all my fifty-eight years, I have never experienced rejection that is so widespread, so continuous and so unchanging.

To make matters worse, I increasingly take issue with voluntary status and sexist language. Volunteers not only are unpaid, they have no defined roles and no authority. They are present at the behest of the Rector, whose powers and authority are quite extensive and they do only those things that the Rector permits. Furthermore, I have been unsuccessful in convincing some of you that the use of exclusive language is more damaging that changing the traditional words. Here at Trinity, a few of you have become "LITURGY COPS." You complain every time I change a word of text to make it more inclusive. Because the writers of the Bible and the Prayer Book were men, their language is sexist and exclusive. I have reached a point where I can't say it the old way; and I can't stand listening to it that way either.

All of this leaves me feeling sad and angry. No amount of prozac or parishioner love and appreciation has been able to assuage those feelings. Over the years, they have continued to grow like an invading, aggressive cancer in my soul. The only way I can diminish it is to seek my Egypt, to find a more nourishing and comfortable soil upon which to carry out my ministry. I think that place may already exist. It probably won't be a sacred or sanctified edifice or church building. I need greater freedom than our church provides to love God with all my heart and to proclaim the good news of that love. I know that God seeks us out wherever we are. God will find me. All I need to do is stop and listen. I will be better able to abide with God and listen to God's counsel if I feel safe and secure and loved for who I am, not who others think I should be. And, in that state, I shall seek new priestly ministries that I cannot yet define or describe.

I have been independent and non-conforming since I was a little girl. My mother loved to remind me that even as a youngster, I preferred to stand alone in the corner rather than say I was sorry! Yet, even to this stubborn child, God's love was worthy of compliance and sacrifice. I was fourteen when I first felt God's presence. I responded with love and loyalty and became a Christian, without knowing or foreseeing the cost in terms of my relationships with family and peers. It was only after I set off on the pilgrim's journey, that I experienced the consequences of alienation and isolation. Thirty years later, while sitting in that pew where Susie Bonnell is right now, I heard God say "I call you." I was so ready to be called into a new relationship with God, that my "yes" was instantaneous and exuberant.

God calls each and every one of us into an intimate, loving relationship that is unlike any we have ever known. It is to protect and preserve that relationship that I am taking my leave from you. Apart from the institutional church, I hope that my faith will be rekindled and nourished. If it is God's will, I will be empowered to reach out to those who are outside of God's embrace, because churches have rejected them or failed to welcome them adequately and generously. I think they need me more than you do.

Two decades ago, Marlo Thomas produced a record entitled "Free to Be ...You and Me" that meant a lot to my stepchildren and me. Bruce Hart provided these lyrics to the title song:

There's a land that I see
where the children are free
And I say it ain't far
to this land from where we are.
Take my hand, come with me
Where the children are free
Come with me - - take my hand
And we'll live
In a land
Where the river runs free
In a land
Through the green country
In a land
to a shining sea
And you and me are free to be, You and Me.

Right now, the only way for me to be released from the Church's tyranny is to break free of it. I choose to be the kind of priest of God that stretches the boundaries rather than one who is confined by them or who confines others. Jesus was non-conforming also. He blatantly disagreed with the religious authorities of His day and often challenged them. It is time for me to share in His challenge and to confirm His promise that nothing, not life nor death nor rulers or people in power can keep us from the love of God that is found in Christ Jesus.

Israel's deliverance from captivity and their restoration to their homeland is a reminder that the birth of Christ is not the first time that God entered into history, in a visible and significant way. Nor is it the only time. The early travels of Jesus and his family replicate the earlier displacement of the Hebrew People. Both situations lend hope to us all, allowing us to dream even in the midst of the worst nightmare. I call on you to accept Jeremiah's counsel, when God returned Israel from exile: "God loves us with an everlasting love!" Be assured: God is still faithful to us. God has intervened in the lives of others in the past. I trust that God will intervene again in your lives and mine.

The new year offers all of us a new beginning. My initial plans are these. I shall spend my Sundays with God, in quiet and reading, to learn new ways of reaching God and reaching those in need of God. I will continue to be a priest of the church; however, "in Egypt" I will be less subject to the tyranny, constraint and censure of Church authorities. When supply work is available, where I am paid to preach and celebrate, I will accept it and use those opportunities to proclaim the good news of God's love for all people. I expect to find new ways to express my priestly ministry. I know God will continue to work in all our lives - through hardship and trial and in times of refreshment and renewal. Since God acted to save Jesus from Herod's slaughter, God will act in each of our lives too.

I hope you will pray unceasingly for the day when Love shall prevail, when shame and degradation, pain and loneliness and alienation and bitterness shall cease so that we can truly sing God's praises, with gladness and joy! Please pray also for me as I will continue to pray for you. I love you all and thank you for letting me love you and for all the love you have shown me these many years.

Christ abides with us wherever we are. The feast prepared at His table to which we all are invited is there to nourish and sustain us for whatever lies ahead. Come, eat and drink and give thanks!

May God bless you and keep you. May God's face shine upon you and give you peace. Amen.


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