Thursday, December 18, 2008

On Choosing Rick Warren...

There are enough religious leaders who embrace broad inclusivity that Mr. Obama could have engaged for his invocation. As a Presbyterian minister, ordained as an openly gay man, I don't need someone who is just like me - or just like anyone else for that matter - to be chosen by the president-elect. However, after this election, this historic election that has done more to take down ancient and violent boundaries between us - why ask someone who raises God in one hand and puts down sisters and brothers with the other? It seems unlike Mr. Obama to intensify a division and invite more marginalization with such a choice. It seems inclusivity, even for our next president, includes some and not others. If the heads of the auto industry flying into Washington in their private jets were a symbol of being out-of-touch, so, too, is a new administration seeking a blessing from such a polarizing individual. Perhaps it just takes leaders a while longer to get the nuances of their actions, outside of their inner circles. I pray for a time when those circles and the injustices their insulation fuels become real and open places of welcoming and justice for all.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Note: Thank you to Michael J. Adee, M.Div., Ph.D., Executive Director & Field Organizer of More Light Presbyterians for his call to write the folks at Newsweek, following the publication of "The Case for Gay Marriage" by Lisa Miller. Here is Michael's message and my response. Please consider writing your own comments in support Lisa Miller and Newsweek.
Michael's note:

MLP friends ---
Please do take a moment to send a note to Newsweek thanking them for the marriage equality cover story.
Sadly, Newsweek is being bombarded right now by anti-gay extremist religious voices. After the narrow anti-gay, unjust victory in California with Prop-8, anti-gay people seem to be flexing their muscles once again and behaving like school-yard bullies.
If we, the progressive faith voices do not speak up and are not heard, the extreme anti-gay religious voices will dominate the conversation and continue to be bullies.
No more bullies, just more light and more love!
To speak out and send an email go to --
Thanks, Michael
PS -- Please forward this email action to others you know who believe in justice, love, fairness and equality!

My response:

Dear Lisa,

As a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church USA and an openly gay man, I thank you and Newsweek for your clear and courageous article.

Your work will not only help others to better understand their family members, friends, and neighbors; it will help guide those working their way to a new understanding of the Bible, as many of us believe it was first intended to be used.

The erroneous and strongly held beliefs you address are filled with the inherent violence that has been used to marginalize and dehumanize our community for too long. The time for this to change is closer with each passing day, in part, now, because of your work.

"The Religious Case for Gay Marriage" is a case for justice, faith, and healing. It appears you have a fine grasp on these tenets of humanity and much more.

Thank you.

Rev. Ray Bagnuolo
White Plains, Ny

Monday, December 8, 2008

Thy Will Not Mine be Done...

On November 2, Barbara Wheeler, President of Auburn Seminary in New York City, published an article in Presbyterian Outlook "Why not replace (or retain) G-6.0106b?" In her piece, she recommended a "no action" vote of 08-B. Some of us had heard about the article, which was planned for an edition that was going to consider different approaches on the ratification of 08-B. I contacted the editor of The Outlook, Jack Haberer, to ask if I could contriubte to the discussion, as a minister of Word and Sacrament who is gay and supports and prays for ratification of 08-B, with so many others. Jack told me that that particular issue had been put to bed, but he invited me to write an essay about my story. The following is the result, which was published in The Outlook a week ago. My thanks to Jack Haberer and The Outlook for the invitation and their willingness to present diverse points-of-view on how G-6.0106b continues to impact the lives of our sisters and brothers in the PC(USA).

I share the link to the piece here, somewhat reluctantly, running the the risk of appearing self-promoting. I do so, instead, to encourage others who are able to please continue to tell their stories whenever and wherever they can. This moment of "kairos," as Michael Adee of More Light Presbyterians refers to it has been long in coming and is critically important. Ratifying 08-B will not divide us, but bring us together in ways we could never imagine.

"Thy will not mine be done..."

I fell in love with God the first time I entered a church. Actually, I was in love with God, even before then, I just didn’t know it until I entered the mystery of that first sanctuary. I was instantly smitten, at home, and in awe of everything. I think I knew I had a vocation as early as nine years of age. I just had no way of knowing it would be forty-five years in the making. Why did it take so long? I discovered I was gay and bit by bit my world began to fall apart. More

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Post-b World: Close-at-hand

I read with interest a new post on The Layman by John Adams, entitled "Conservative flight could boost 'progressive' vote against 'fidelity/chastity'."

It hints, perhaps, to a shift in the vote in favor of 08-B and a subtle but important change in tactic. The required rhetoric warning against the ordination of LGBT/Q folk is there, should 08-B be passed. In addition, though, the warning has become more generalized, broadening the importance of defeating 08-B in order to prevent "men and women who are sexually active outside of marriage" from being ordained.

It may be that the author, John Adams, who I respect and with whom I have had some significant disagreements, is sensing less of a resistance against our community. By broadening the argument, it is almost like he is saying, "OK, maybe you are unsure of whether LGBT/Q folk should or should not be ordained, however, put that aside. If 08-B gets through, it's the same as telling every man and women who wants to have sex outside of marraige to go ahead and we will still ordain you." 

A clever argument, once more based on fear. And, I think, a tip of the hat to us and the progressive groups that the faith, work, education, diligence, sacrifice and heart with which we have continued to press this church -- may actually be gaining support among those who were once adversaries.

It makes sense that sooner rather than later this church begins to feel the impact of a rising tide of welcoming and support for our LGBT/Q community. It makes sense, when one hears the stories I have time and again of faithful church-going families having loved ones denied a full membership in our church because they were LGBT/Q. It makes sense, that this is the time when the tireless work of organizations like That All May Freely ServeMore Light PresbyteriansWitherspoon SocietyCovenant Network, and many other groups and individuals is building to a consensus that was evident at GA218. 

What is happening is being fueled by the Spirit; we all know that.  But we are called to continue the legwork that has taken us this far, this close to the beginning of a just and welcoming church. We are in the time of a new ministry that will bring Word and Sacrament to our membership and the world in a way that has been long awaited and longer for. Among the many things God is doing in this world, this is surely one of them.

For the first time in the last decade, there are no other motions or task forces underway to siphon votes from passing the delete/change of G-6.0106b in ratifying 08-B. Those who have opposed ordination for our community frequently point to the increasing "NO" votes over the years when delete B overtures made it to the committees and plenaries of GA, or to the presbyeries. I have often felt that many of those votes were actually votes in favor of the Theological Task Force on Peace Unity and Purity to complete its work; it was a softer alternative than an outright delete B vote; it was an alternative that has its place now in our church, but it is not the answer to a full welcoming, without additional hoops to jump through, for our LGBT/Q called community. 

This time of ratification is truly a time of great anticipation and prayer. It is a time for enthusiastic and continued work within our presbyteries and with one another in our churches throughout the nation. It is also a time of thanksgiving for our faithful allies who have idefatigably spoken for many in our community who have been unable to speak for themselves. Without doubt, we are a family closer together than ever before, and the full reunion is soon to come: a reunion for all.

In this time of Advent on a day that we remember what ignorance and discrimination has done to create a pandemic called AIDS, let us not give up hope for one second, because the time for healing and unity in a post-b world is close-at-hand. 

Praise God.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Response to The Berkley Blog

The Berkley Blog

Dear Jim,

I am a minister of Word and Sacrament, ordained as an openly gay man in 2005, prior to PUP. Throughout my process, I made it clear that I could not abide by G-6.0106b, as a matter of conscience. I was not a child, at the time. In fact, I was in my mid-fifties. I was called to serve a congregation as a part-time interim. Over three years, we worshipped together, baptized several young children, buried more than a dozen members, and entered the Spirit together in the ways that any pastor, aware of the mystery of God, would do so: humbly and listening.

As I read your blog from time to time, I always read first how you describe yourself. I could say much of what you say about yourself – about me.

When I get to the comments, though, I wonder why folks are expending so much energy in opposition to people like me, not knowing much about who I am, or what I do, or how I live my life. Yet, because I am gay, I am a target. That is something that gives me pause, perhaps it gives pause to some of your readers, as well.

I wonder, too, about the many individuals and caring families that comment here or sit in your church and other pews that are struggling because their son or daughter, a friend, or others they know - good people whom they love - is gay. Is it possible that considering all we know, have read, and written that maybe God is giving such friends and children to us so that those who oppose and discriminate against LGBT people in God's church might change – not the other way around?

There will always be two sides to every bit of proof-texting, it is what books, seminaries, and good sermons are made of. Unfortunately, it is also what primary fund-raising efforts in many instances rely upon. We could easily pick out sections of the Bible that are no longer followed because they are clearly wrong and inappropriate for our day.  Then there are some of those we keep…because they serve a purpose, a purpose not grounded in love.

My point in all this is that we have substituted love and honoring the continuing revelation of God's call to love serve one another, with a call to judgment and marginalization of others. If we can step beyond our fear to see that this is what we are doing, maybe, maybe we will just find God in one another in ways that will heal us, allowing us to embrace one another rather than to aim at gay people as targets.

When that happens, I think, the Word and Sacrament will have changed the world, once again.


Raymond J. Bagnuolo

Minister of Word and Sacrament

Presbytery of Hudson River, NY

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Worst Action of All: No Action

The recent recommendation of some notable allies in the struggle for LGBT/Q folk has been to "do nothing" in considering the ratification of 08-B. For many of us, many...the idea of leaving G-6.0106b intact in our constitution points to the misunderstanding common to most institutions. The "misunderstanding" is that the PC(USA) is dealing with the issue of ordination standards for LGBT/Q folk. We are not an issue, thank you very much. We are not dealing with an issue - we are living, breathing, spirit-filled creations of God just like everyone else. We cannot be objectified as "an issue" in an attempt to distance this ratification from the real lives of our sisters and brothers who are LGBT/Q and how the church's consitution impacts those lives. 

In all the years that I have been part of working with others to change the church's practices, I have always been up-ended in trying to understand how loving Christians could not recognize how these unjust practices, ensured to continue by G-6.010b, could be allowed to go on knowing the violence they cause. Indeed, some of those most vocal in recommending no action have acknowledged the violence the church has nurtured by its misguided treatment of the  LGBT/Q community and the responsibility it has to change; to stop the violence; to accept its wrong-doing; and to set an example for others to follow in welcoming Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people into the full work and worship of the Church of Jesus Christ. To hear at this critical time of decision, "Take no action," means the same thing it has meant for more than four decades: "Wait some more, LGBT folk. Wait. Our church is not quite ready. It's going to be too disruptive. Just a while longer. Let's try another way." 

Well, sorry, we are ready, and after 40 years of conversation and trying other ways it's time for the church to be ready, as well.

What is remarkable, I think, is that I believe most Presbyterians and most presbyteries are ready to finally go forward and use the new language for G-6.0106b that will deliver us all from this ongoing blemish on our church, our ministries, and our souls. What is remarkable to me is when some who are allies start sounding much like those who oppose us. Surely, that is not true, at least not directly. However, when actions are suggested that could postpone justice for reasons that are based on "order," I begin to have difficulty in teasing apart the practical difference between the two.

In many ways, the idea that any remnant of the current intention of G-6.0106b could be left in our Book of Order, regardless of advances in other areas - is an affront to the LGBT/Q Christian community and another blow to the chance we have to minister to those LGBT/Q believers seeking sanctuary and community in their faith journey to God. 

Perhaps, even more than the physical violence that emanates from any discriminatory policy, such as G-6.0106b, the spiritual violence of turning away God's children, denying them a full welcome, especially by allies and supporters has to be the worst blow of all.

Please, work within your churches, presbyteries, committees, and elsewhere to ratify 08-B. There are wonderful resources available at,, and elsewhere. And, once this work is done, the real work of healing and amends can begin. Until then, divided we will be.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

On Proposition 8 and More

In Response to "Not so Black & White" Blog

Thanks for your post. I especially liked the comment about how Jackie Robinson's invitation to play on the Dodgers showed just how racist we were. How racist, we still are in too many ways.

I am an openly gay Presbyterian Minister, one of a small number who somehow found ourselves in presbyteries with the courage to ordain us, even though there is in our constitution a "Proposition 8" called G-6.0106b that is used to exclude LGBT/Q folk from leadership in the church. It is very hard to understand, actually I don't, how we can profess the things we do and treat certain groups to power and other groups to marginalized obscurity - expecting them to go quietly into the night.

I remember the time after Matthew Sheppard was attacked and killed. I was certain, absolutely certain that it would finally wake people up to just how the bias and bigotry produced violence in horrific ways. In some ways that happened, but not in enough ways. 

Someone once said that it takes two generations for a revolution to become integrated into society. Among many other things, Obama's election proved that when enough people have had enough - change occurs.

I hope we have had enough of homophbia and its companions. While people of color have little choice about being "out," people who are LGBT/Q can too often pass under the radar. It is not easy to come out, each person needs to do so in their own time. However, the struggles we face cannot be resolved solely by allies.

If "Yes we can" is the mantra then perhaps its queer sister is "We've had enough." Enough of being placed on hold. Time for effective and radically inclusive love that opens the doors of this nation and it rights to all - is now.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A bit of writing

Response to

Hi Mike -

Thanks for your response. I truly do understand your comments and also honor you as a member of God's amazing family. I also know the desire to seek "proof" of one's convictions, whether theologically, scientifically, anthropologically, or against any other standard that might "resolve" what we wish could be seen clearly through that dark glass of Paul's.

The heart is an amazing organ. In the times of Jesus, it was considered the center of one's being; certainly, it was held in at least as high esteem as the mind. In so many ways, my struggle has been in trusting the heart in the face of the conflicting and ever-changing studies, debates, and, unfortunately, some of the violence that always accompanies marginalization. Whatever the connection between heart, mind, soul, and spirit - I know that it is not vengeful. Instead it is loving and accepting and it does need to be listened to. I believe that God still speaks to us, even in these times. Revelation, I believe, continues to be a somewhat forgotten way in which God is seeking to do what God has in mind for us.

All that being said, "proof" is elusive. Over the years of working for the inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) people in the full work and worship of the church, the Presbyterian Church in particular, I have observed many debates over certain Scriptural passages. Most interesting to me is that I have often watched two very faithful, intelligent Christians argue the same passage of Scripture from two different points of view. When done, neither side seems to have moved, however each side is pleased with and reaffirmed by the efforts of their colleague. Nothing is changed.

This is one example, there are others, but for me - and I speak only for me - I don't believe that the Bible was given to us as something to be debated. There are, of course, many modern exclusions of certain practices in the Bible that neither of us would agree considering to practice -- enough of them to point to influence of the socioeconomic times in which such things were written. The Bible is, though, a testament to the story of peoples' faith in God and what they were willing to do to honor that faith. I find great courage and strength in such examples. I often remember what a seminarian professor once told her class, "Remember, when you read the Bible - it reads you!"

So, I come to a place of believing in God's way of using us, all of us, to serve the wonderful diversity of God's creation. If I err in any of this, I hope I err on the side of love, the love God has for me and for you, and all of us. Such a mistake would be overlooked much more easily than sitting in judgment on God and God's creation.

I really do hope that we can find ways to be faithful together in our disagreements, even the most difficult ones. It is that witness that I believe to be the most powerful of the Gospels and teachings of Jesus we strive to follow. It is that witness that can be a model for all to follow and a path for this world closer to the God that calls us all.

In peace,

Sunday, September 28, 2008

I’ll Take Number Two…

Palisades Presbyterian Church
Palisades, New York  10964
September 28, 2008

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-25

Author’s Note: This was delivered today, my last Sunday after three years as interim minister. The new minister, The Rev. Angela Maddalone Skinner, begins as the next permanent pastor on November 3, 2008.

I took a look back. I brought up my first sermon as Interim Minister to this congregation, delivered on October 2, 2005. If you were here, you may recall that it was a time shortly after my examination at presbytery and before my ordination, which would take place six weeks later. It was a pause in the kairos of great expansiveness and unknowing. Everything seemed wide!

My sermon title on that day was: “Do No Harm…” I began by talking about the recent capture of a giant squid by a Japanese research vessel that had hit the news. The crew hooked it, brought it in, and later dissected it – trying to force it to give up its secrets. It set-up my comments, so to speak, on how the urge to know something – sometimes does harm, sometimes unnecessarily. In this case, the squid’s life was exhausted to find out more about its mystery. Research often requires such a thing and thoughtful people to know how to balance the need to know vs. the harm.

Somewhere in the body of my sermon, I said the following:

A mystery, a true mystery, remains so – and remains real. The inability to explain it should not be cause to acknowledge it as false. There are too often times when words can not, simply should not be able to unravel to our satisfaction the ambiguity that soars through the universe, ultimately successful in its resistance to all forces of determination to “figure it out.” In fact, those are my favorite kind of mysteries; the ones than cannot be explained – some of those are the ones that give me the greatest hope.

While the readings this morning are not the same as they were on that October day in 2005, I was struck by the parallel with Matthew in the Scriptures read by Jane, especially the response of Jesus when he refused to tell the chief priests and the elders by what authority he was doing the things they had heard and seen. Jesus understood the presence of mystery and lived in it. He knew, perhaps, that there are just times when “telling” and “knowing” are too far apart. No examination or dissection can explain them. The best you can do is to just be who you have been made to be and do what you believe you have been called to do. Your example, not your words, will be enough in such instances.

In so many ways, my time here with you is a reflection from within that mystery. There is a deep and abiding “being” in this midst and a vast “knowing” that revolves well into the unexplained of God’s great universe. Living, as you strive to do in such a way places the keys to the kindom in your hands, and you regularly use them to open doors and hearts as you go. Make no mistake; it is you who are partially responsible for the increase in sightings of the Holy Spirit, unleashed here on a regular basis!

We all know that an interim minister’s job is to bridge the time between former and new pastors in a way that gives the transition time to work things out. We have done that. Truly, we have done what we set out to do and we should feel blessed, grateful, and pleased.

And, in many conversations with you, we have talked about the changes that have taken place over our time together, and frequently I hear the words “healing” and “joy” in those conversations. I have to tell you, it’s enough to do a cartwheel over!

What I know about the deep mystery from which such things as healing and joy ignite, is that they are there long before they “suddenly” appear. What is so remarkable to me about the faith we share in God and the teachings of Jesus, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in all the ways you may know God – is that even when there is deep sadness and sorrow – we don’t run. We enter it with each other and in so doing discover, -- after a while, perhaps, but nonetheless – we discover the healing God, the joyful God, and the one another beside us, holding onto God, being held by God, as well. We do that here all the time.

And, of all that we have done, in the many ways we have been sisters and brothers to one another, God, has always been with us and will always be with us. We are always assured of healing, joy, and love. We will always be called to act, to serve, to “pass it forward,” because we have accepted the invitation to the wedding of justice and love. A union that took place here long ago and is thriving, just thriving as Palisades Presbyterian Church prepares for the next chapter.

For me, this is the “full accord and of one mind” that Paul refers to in Philippians. Again, the inadequacy of words as other than pointers to something greater, but the “full accord and of one mind” is our presence (full accord) in the God that we know (the one mind). From there, we move along on our journeys, our daily lives, “trying to be of the same mind of Jesus the Christ.” We become the prayer of Paul’s charge to “pray without ceasing.” We consciously begin to find more and more of God in our lives in more and more ways. We encounter Jesus along the way. We have shared such stories. We practice what he teaches us, and we practice more, knowing this is not about perfection but progress. And in so doing, especially in community such as this, we know his presence, helping us, encouraging us, healing us. We – we are never alone with him. And, in some mysterious way, I think he is never alone with us, either.

And it is always important for me, for us, I think, to recognize that God moves in different ways and is known by many different names, yet, however it is we may find God, the balm that heals and soothes, that gives us strength and courage, that brings us to unconditional love to serve others – is always the same. It is a rose by any and every other name.

It is the unconditional love by which we are loved that calls us to serve others. The service is inherent in it and it is not complete without service. Goes together like a horse and carriage…you can’t have one without the other!

It is what binds us together, even when we are far apart. It is our church, our mission, our call…our unity.

Some of you were here a couple of weeks ago as Scott Rasmussen brought many of us to tears, when during Joys and Concerns, and through his own tears and with the help of Grandma Beatrice – he said that he didn’t want me to go.

Well, I can work it out pretty well with most of you, but Scott did me in.

After worship, Scott and I talked outside a bit. I put my arm around his shoulder and said, “You know, Scott, sometimes in life you make choices about getting to know people. Now and then you have to decide whether you are going to avoid getting too close to someone because if you do, you just know it’s going to hurt when they leave. So you keep your distance and you never get to really know them and when they go, it doesn’t hurt so much, and before you know it they are forgotten.

Other times, you just decide that you will let yourself get close, really get to know someone, and remember them the rest of your life, never forgetting them. Really, really caring for them, even though you know it’s going to hurt a bit – maybe a lot when it comes time to say, “Good-bye.”

I asked him, then, given the choice of either of those, which one he would rather have. He thought for only a second looked up at me and said, “I’ll take number two.” I looked back at him and said, “Me, too.”

And I say to you, “Me, too.”


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Reviving Grace in the Midst of Accord and Dissent

Author’s Note: I was ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in November of 2005. Of the nearly 1,000 individuals ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament since that date, mine is the only ordination for an openly gay man. It is a distinction that I hope will soon be overwhelmed by becoming commonplace and forgotten.

The 218th General Assembly has come but far from gone. If not already, you may soon be involved in a discussion regarding the recommended ratification of the 218th General Assembly to amend the language of G-6.0106b.

The proposed change to the Book of Order and G-6.0106b reads as follows:

“Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003), pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240 and G-14.0450) establishes the candidate’s sincere efforts to adhere to these standards.”

The proposed amendment replaces the existing language of G-6.0106b:

“Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.”

The new language aligns the decisions for ordination more closely to those already in the Book of Order, without singling out a standard. The standard noted in the current language has been consistently and primarily used since its inception to prevent called Christians who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBT/Q) from being ordained.

The result of your process of prayer, conversation, discernment, prayer, and decision will be one of the most important outcomes in modern-day religious justice-reform. Its impact will critically address the lives of the faithful of our church and be felt far beyond the boundaries of the PC(USA). Religious communities will be looking our way for leadership. Also looking to us will be those seeking a church that has embraced the teachings of Jesus to a degree that reflects the diversity and needs of the Body of Christ in today’s world – or not.

The purpose of this letter is to contribute whatever help I might be able to offer as you enter into this careful and sacred time, seeking your response to the recommendation of the General Assembly for ratification of the proposed amendment. As the first openly gay man called to serve a congregation in and ordained by the Presbytery of Hudson River, New York, I may have some perspectives or experiences that would be helpful to you in your discussions. I have no agenda, other than to be informative.

Yes, I am hopeful that the amendment will be ratified by the greatest possible number of our presbyteries; however, I humbly respect the differences of deeply-held beliefs that exist. You can be assured that I will do my best to answer your questions as transparently as I can. My goal is to be present with you, knowing that the choice you make will be between you and the Holy Spirit.

We may ultimately disagree, but I will stand by you and your beliefs, even in such disagreement.

Prior to the 218th General Assembly, I wrote a series of essays calling for unity within the progressive partnerships and attempting to dispel what I saw as “myths” related to welcoming Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBT/Q) individuals into the full work and worship of the PC(USA). These essays can be found online at They may be helpful to you in your discussions, and I invite you to use and reprint them, as you choose. There are many other resources to which I can refer you, as well.

If asked, I will travel as best I can, answer E-mails, phone calls, conference calls, or meet online. I complete my three-year term as Interim Minister at Palisades Presbyterian Church in Palisades, New York as of September 30. Our new minister is on her way, and I await God’s next call for me. In the meantime, I believe this is what I am being asked to do. I also invite any who might wish to join me in this outreach to let me know.

And, if none of this is of interest to you, let us continue in prayer together, as we seek a way beyond the accord and dissent to a place of grace and unity – embracing one another and our differences in the much greater love of God that envelopes us all.


Contact Information:

Rev. Ray Bagnuolo, PO Box 828, White Plains, NY 10602-0828
Website:; Blog:
Phone: (914) 217-4173

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Healing? A blessing.

Palisades Presbyterian Church
Palisades, New York

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 14, 2998

Romans: 14: 1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

“We are a congregation who strives to provide a safe place for everyone. Some of our friends and members have a clear sense of their own mission in life; others are struggling to find a sense of spirituality; and still others would not speak of a church in those terms, but would instead emphasize their love for the community. All are equally welcome. We try to listen to each other, uncritically and with patience and openness, believing that everyone brings gifts that should be shared. We realize that we do not always succeed in this ideal, but we know that when we do, we ourselves grow and God’s purposes are served.”

– Opening paragraph from the “Mission Study 2006” of Palisades Presbyterian Church, October 15, 2006

Paul could have written this. As he moved across the land in the middle of the first century, throughout Jerusalem, Syria, Greece, Italy, and Jerusalem, again, where his planned trip to Spain was halted by his final incarceration – his sense of community and Jesus and Judaism would likely have brought a resounding, “Yes!” in reading such a statement.

Reading it, he might have felt as though he had gotten through to whoever had written it, finally! It wasn’t always easy for Paul: the struggles of community, secular influences, tensions surrounding the increasing diversity of followers, guidelines for faithfulness in the midst of emerging sects and governmental infringements – all these things and more challenged him on a regular basis. It wasn’t always easy, but still…he called it out in his teachings to others:

“Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” Romans 14:1

In Paul’s writings, words like “faith” or “grace” are often used as metonyms, that is attributes of Jesus used to indirectly refer to Jesus. If that is true, then he is here saying, basically, if you find yourself drawn here – or even just happening here – you are welcome here in our midst. Not to be argued with, debated, or proselytized to – welcome…and your gifts are important to us. We consider you a blessing as we grow in the teachings of the one called Jesus.

Or as our Mission Statement says:
“We are a congregation who strives to provide a safe place for everyone.”

A little while later in the readings, Paul asks,

“Who are you to pass judgments on the servants of another? It is before their own lord they stand or fall.” Romans 14:4

And, once again, Paul might have written the answer to “Who are you…” from the section of our Mission Study, aptly titled, “Who We Are”:

“Our religious backgrounds are very diverse. Some of us, but only a minority, have attended a Presbyterian Church since childhood. For some of us, too, but again only a minority, Palisades Presbyterian Church is the first church that we have ever attended, begun well after adulthood…Many could correctly be called theologically liberal, but such a designation would fail to capture our focus on individual healing and spirituality. Many of us have stories, poignant and only occasionally told, of God’s transformative power in our lives.”

Paul would have said, “Welcome, to us!” I am sure. Just as we do to the others who visit.

In this morning’s reading of Romans and these excerpts from our Mission Study, we get a glimpse, I think, into what it is that creates a healing, blessing center in this church. First and foremost, we truly do welcome God’s great diversity in the people and their beliefs. In fact, we not only welcome people, we invite them to join us. As a result, we become that diverse group of believers.

Secondly, we acknowledge that there are different faith journeys in each of our lives, often with backgrounds in different faith traditions, and while we use the language of our own teachings, we know that the words we use are at best pointers to the wonder and vastness of God; God, well beyond our grasp and yet evident in every direction we turn – if we but look.

Here, it seems we look more often than not!

And, seeing God all around us, welcoming God in others in wildly generous ways has a great impact on many who still have concerns and second thought about, well, “church.” Entering a space like this, getting an idea of the sacredness and joy that abounds here, begins to remove the tightness of breath, the clench of the teeth or the fists, and the apprehension or past experiences or even condemnations begin to drift away, along with the guilt that has accompanied many for so long, institutionalized in some churches for so long, absent here – for longer than that.

We and our visitors begin to remember – or maybe experience for the first time – the blessing and healing that comes with being in a place and with others who breathe in the Spirit. I can’t even begin to describe what happens over time in such a place, except that there begins a resonance of healing that has profound effects.

Suddenly things come into focus, from how we deal with one another to how we look at our time on this planet in terms of God’s will for us. We see ways to take care of one another with more tenderness and meaning, while beginning to see our lives in terms of the spiritual beliefs we embrace. And the stories, the stories we share that encourage each of us to continue when our own steps are a bit halting or downright painful to take.

“We know that it’s not all about us;” says our Mission Study, “[we believe] God’s love embraces the world and everyone in it. Of course, we realize that the problems of the world are very great and not easily solved, and furthermore, that all of us share some of the responsibility for their being thee. But we have a fervent hope for the future. [And] we do what we can…”

Most of all we enter Love.

Last week we talked about how important it is to forgive ourselves on the road to loving ourselves and thus being useful to others. We spoke of how difficult it has been for many of us, I include myself here, in accepting our own humanity and limitations, our own lack of power in controlling the events and actions of others – or predicting the outcomes. We reminded ourselves, last week, that once we let go of such heavy and unreasonable burdens of being perfect and in charge of the world, we could begin to heal the pain that sometimes gets in the way of loving ourselves and extending that outward. We talked about leaving the centrifugal force of our own reiterated needs, and releasing the past, so that we could find serenity and peace enough to pay attention to one another – all sorts of one anothers, as the Spirit and God – however we know either –lead us!

Even contemplating such a thing has a freeing sense of leaving the bonds of such a place.

As I worship with you this morning, I know this is what we attempt to do: we truly do love others and, yet, we never feel as though we are doing enough. And so we gather and pray, to remember that we are not alone, to ask for help, and to know once more that we are not the only ones active in God’s endeavor of love and healing. There are others reaching out, as well, in as many different ways as there are people. We are part of a broad, life-changing ministry of healing and blessings, a part of the mission of God in this world, that starts here and in other places like here and grows and grows and grows until, one day, there will be a convergence of Love and Spirit as never seen before.

We may never see the end results of our work in our time here, but we will see some of it, we have already, and ultimately, just to know we are a part of it – is really enough. We just have to do our part and God takes care of the rest…

Matthew reminds us of the simple directions Jesus gave his disciples for doing such a thing, living in such a way. In Matthew’s reading this morning, when Jesus replies to the question of how often you should forgive a church member who sins against a brother or sister, instead of the rabbinical code of three times, or Peter’s generosity in suggesting seven, Jesus replied “Seventy times seven” – not meaning 490, but in celestial math: seventy times seven times seven … to infinity!” Or, until you forgive and forget. Another way of saying, “Forgive and love…”

The story of the land owner and his servant is only in the gospel of Matthew; it does not appear in Luke or Mark. However, it underscores the greatest commandment of all, inherent in the inserted parable: Love God with all your heart, and love one another as yourself.” Simple to say…not always easy to do, a day at a time we try.

And in a few days, when our time together continues apart, the blessings of your powerful healing and mission will carry me, as it did as it did throughout all our time together. Even when we struggled here and there, the truth is that the healing we have known was there to draw upon because deep inside we wanted it. We had its longing in our hearts. We still do, and that’s a very good thing. It is a blessing, indeed.

And those hearts and spirit and blessings and healing and love will welcome your new minister and their gifts into the mighty stream that courses through here, as it changes your lives and all those it will touch on its journey guided by the spirit.

I have known that to be true for a long time. So, has this congregation, our Mission Statement even states it:

“We are a congregation who strives to provide a safe place for everyone…”

And, truly that says it all.


Sunday, September 7, 2008

Called by Creation

Palisades Presbyterian Church, Palisades, NY 10964

Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

It seems we don’t have much choice. There is nothing more fundamental to who we are. Layer it up in any way you like. Cover it up. Push it aside. It won’t go away.

There is no getting around that we are called by creation to be in love with one another. And, we only have the time we have to do it, which is now.

All the rules of the world’s religions, commandments, and otherwise all come down to, well, jumping in the pool – and loving each other as we love ourselves.

A little “plug” for our gathering this afternoon!

But, herein is the problem, at least for me: learning to love myself. I never really learned how to do that – well into my thirties. I’m sure someone, maybe many people, caring and wise tried to do that – but I had a secret, you see, and that secret meant several things:

(1) You’re not getting too close to me, because if you did – you might find out what I was hiding and I could not deal with that

(2) All your kindness and affection would disappear if you really knew who I was

(3) The love and promises you showered on me – were showered on who you thought I was, not the real me – so they didn’t really apply.

I had to learn, through a lot of trial and error, that there were people that would love and accept me unconditionally, even though I was gay – some maybe even because of it! And until that happened, well, nothing got much better for me, and, truthfully, nothing got much better for those around me. I could not be who I was with others, so only part of me got through – and when that happens, something is always lost on both ends.

Once love broke through the barriers I had created around myself, once that happened, it breathed upon the eternal flame that is always there and slowly the love grew that even I began to feel it for myself, and as it grew it changed the way I saw others – and continues to influence the way I love others in sometimes slow and always surprising ways.

So, the direction to love our neighbor as ourselves, calls us first to learn to love ourselves.
It’s sort of like the Serenity Prayer… you need the serenity first...

And Paul, writing about the “end of times” that they all believed was coming shortly, warns: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” And in his exhortation, he is right – whether the end of times is imminent or eons away: this, this is the only time we have: and waking from sleep, waking from the impediments in our lives to fullness, into a love of ourselves which transcends into more to offer others – that needs to be done sooner than later – because it is the connecting of love to love, and that is the connecting of God to God, in ourselves and to one another.

And about the darkness…have you ever noticed there is a certain comfort in self-recrimination. For me, at least, it has been easier at times to be critical of myself, instead of gentle and forgiving of myself. When I read Paul’s letter to the Romans, chastising the readers not to make any provisions for the flesh to gratify the desires, I don’t hear a call to the monastic life (although some might). I hear a call to resist the temptation to enter into the darkness of separation and self-pity – a physical, as well as, spiritual and emotional place.

I have had times, truly, when I was more comfortable with things going badly, more able to manage the expectations of “one damn thing after the other” [Churchill’s definition of history, by the way] than handling things when they were going well. It probably had to do with the fact that by expecting bad things to happen, I would never be disappointed when they did.

It wasn’t until I started to love myself by accepting my human condition and recognizing that God, whoever God is, did in fact know and love me – that I became free to see that I didn’t have to live in fear of the past, present, or future. As that faded, the space it left behind seemed to fill naturally with a desire to be present, still, in love, you might say.

So, I understand Matthew, as well, when he says that the laws would be fulfilled if we were all to live in such a place, and surely, as much as some of the texts are changed and redacted over time – this was central to the teachings and message of Jesus.

We all know that we’re not there yet, but neither was I for a long time and I am still working on it. So, I know things, people, we – change. And, I know places where people get it and keep at it – this being one of those places.

You cannot be here for very long, before the hesitancy to connect with others dissipates, and suddenly, in some way, you find yourself happy you were here [and probably on a committee!!!]. Something is touched here - that for some of us has been left untouched or uncomforted or recognized for too long.

In community with each other, we discover how we are not all that different, how we have all felt the sting of mistakes, and have all felt the longing for meaning, fulfillment, and the safety and strength of love.

That kind of power or presence cannot be contained. It escapes to be free and carried out in all sorts of ways, touching others as it goes…

And it has the effect of changing the lives of all in the process, in some way or another. More so, it is abundant and unlimited, because, in truth, we find it just by recognizing what is already there. It is the fabric of the universe and of creation and we are called to it, for we are of it and it is of us. It is the call of Creation, of God.

There will always be moments of darkness, but in the Bible day always follows night, light always follows darkness. And in those times of shadows or deserts, part of who we are emerges that cannot surface in the bustle and busy of every day. We need both the dark and the light – maybe the dark to remind us that love of ourselves, forgiveness of ourselves is what we need to heal – and the light to practice sharing our love with others in need.

When I think of all being welcome at this table – I think of it as a place where seekers meet on their journey, to be nourished in love and community. We cannot be who we say we are trying to be and have any boundaries around any who join us. It is a table of Love.

Love – God: Wide, Wise, Forgiving, Understanding, Unconditional, and Calling us in a way that made us want to bring the Good News of loving as a way of living to everyone.

We may only get to see glimpses of the wonder in its fullness, but somehow today I know it, better than I ever have before. For me, that is quite a change. A miracle, I think.

As we begin this new year, whether part or none of this makes any sense, just being present makes the difference – and trust that God/Love will do the rest, as she has in the past!

I know it’s so, because, to borrow from Jack London -

It’s the Call of Creation.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Who do you say God is?

Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

I remember a time in my early twenties when I was really confused about God. Not like I am today, in a good way, I think – which I will talk about in a few minutes, but in a way that at the time made God very different than something deeply inside of me could completely recognize.

I started a practice then that continues today – I would have these long conversations with God, often sitting on a beach late at night, wondering why God would not appear, walk on water towards me, or do something to answer the “other” questions that were so perplexing in my life.

Just for an instant, I wanted God to show Godself – send one of those angels or another messenger. I wanted proof, even though I wouldn’t have admitted it. And, I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but more then and once in a while even now – I want something more than faith. You know, a simple appearance would do just fine.

After a while it all became too much to hold together. Yes, being gay had a lot to do with it. But I have talked with many who had debates with God and church, at the time used synonymously.

As I saw more and more what these restrictive teachings were doing to me and others, I wanted to shake everyone out of their mass acceptance of a God that punishes and separates. And, if you were not a male Caucasian in most religions of the time, you were separated from. Your role was often seen as one of sacrifice, accepting the burdens of your gender and race or condition, and conform – or leave.

It’s not that I wasn’t willing to accept my share of burden or sacrifice – it was just that I found that no degree of such servanthood seemed to make my life better. Shouldn’t it be better if I was sacrificing, conforming, accepting my burden?!

Well, it wasn’t and, in fact, attempts at imposed conformity nearly destroyed me, as it had many others to one degree or another, sometimes to the most extreme of degrees.

You know, I really wanted to believe – believe it all, from Moses to miracles. But I just couldn’t. And when I sought out answers from friendly and approachable leaders in the church, they would say with a wink and a nod – “just live according to your conscience and you’ll be fine.”

To tell you the truth, that messed me up even more. If you’re telling me God accepted and loved me as I was, then let’s tell everyone. That’s the Good News! Aren’t we supposed to be spreading the Good News?! Where’s the fairness, love, or justice in just a few of us knowing, when others are suffering from a lack of knowing?

Truthfully, It just kept getting worse and made less and less sense to me. Confusion led to near-despair, and ultimately – simply as an act of survival at some primal spiritual level – I left the church.

No indictment or indignation, I just needed to breathe. If God didn’t understand that, then it didn’t make any difference anyway.

I refer to the years that followed as my “desert time,” a place I sometimes revisit. I wasn’t there for forty years, but over nearly a decade I found solace and God in that place that somehow became a living setting of all that had been written and the one sanctuary of all creation. It was a wanderer’s place, with encounters of others on the same path along the way – but in many ways a personal and solitary place. I have to admit, there are times when nothing helps like sand between the toes.

Later, I discover that my so-called “maladjustment” to conditions was a good thing.

If we tilt Paul a little on the side for a different view, it may just be that he was talking about some of these same things. From this morning’s readings:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Is Paul saying, perhaps, that the living sacrifice requires sometimes that we give up what is comfortable, assured, even promised for certain behaviors?

And the conformity that he cautions embracing are echoed in the words of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he, too, cautions about the immense pressures for cultural conformity (including the church in one’s culture) a, “condition[ing] our minds and feet to move to the rhythmic drumbeat of the status quo.”

I have to tell you that the status quo drives me crazy. The last thing I want to become is “status quo,” and yet we can’t function without some things falling into this category of expectation and dependability. Again, I rely on Dr. King for the insight for which my words fall short:

“There are some things in our world to which men [sic] of goodwill must be maladjusted. I confess that I never intend to become adjusted to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination, to the moral degeneracy of religious bigotry and the corroding effects of narrow sectarianism, to economic conditions that deprive men [sic] of work and food, and to the insanities of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.” - Dr. King’s Sermon Transformed Nonconformist January 1966

Or as Dan Cleneden says, “Christian non-conformity, in other words, has a specific direction.”

I think Paul would have understood this, even used the language. Paul is an exhorter, calling people to a new way of living – yes, to a new justice, to a renewed sense of the God of Israel, the God of the Shema Yisrael that would never have accepted anything less than hospitality for the stranger, a fundamental tenet of justice that is the root of love – or the other way around, if you prefer.

It should be noted that such reform ideas are incredibly powerful, and, as such – are met with strong resistance by those who prefer the status quo that favors one group (their group) over another.

Looking at my own life, if I were to draw a picture of it as a sphere, it would be constrained by my own human conditions, my shortcomings, and lack of patience, tolerance, love, and understanding – all those things that are held in place by the deep gravity of fear. And around that sphere there is another ring, like a ring of Saturn. The ring represents the growth away from self toward the other, forged by the struggles and the mistakes I have made and the kindness of others, and the grace of God. It is that edge, just a few millimeters from the surface of the sphere that has made and continues to make a difference in my life that gives it meaning. Much of that distance, for me, has been transversed in the desert.

And still, there are no “final answers” to the Big Question. Who is God?

I use the language of my tradition to talk about God, but every word is inherently limited, every word but a pointer to what cannot be described. The closest I get is “a presence that I know that guides me,” the same presence that I have heard about, witnessed in others, and read about throughout the Bible and other works.

It’s much easier for me to answer, “Where is God?” Everywhere.

So, let’s enter for a moment into the “God is Everywhere” place and consider Matthew’s writings that Sue read for us this morning. First, let’s remember that Matthew’s writing is tending toward the high Christology of John, that is, his purpose is to secure Jesus as the Messiah in the eschatological sense of Judaism, not just as an anointed one, such as a prophet.

A look at Gospel Parallels shows just how Matthew has enhanced this passage from what was most likely a Markan original (written around 65-70CE), relying as well on the Lost Gospel of Q.

This reading in Matthew falls between the encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, the feeding of the masses, and what follows in 16:21-28, the foreshadowing of the Passion of Jesus, in which Jesus rebukes Peter:

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
So, what is going on at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say the Son of Man [this child of God] is?

In the last few weeks, we spoke about Jesus growing into his ministry, learning more about his call. Any leader, spiritual or otherwise, listens to those around them for feedback, insight, criticism.

“What do people say, Peter?” “What do you say?”

Matthew adds several lines here not in the other gospels, but setting those aside for a minute or two, one wonders if Jesus thought to himself upon hearing the answers, “What is going on here? Could this be true? Is this what all these things have meant, what this journey is about? Is this that longing inside that refuses to go away, the absolute certainty I have about how things need to be changed and what is wrong and how everything has become so confusing and wrong from what God could ever have meant it to be? How has this tradition of Moses and Abraham been so turned on its head? Have I been called to do this, to set my face to Jerusalem based on this knowing that it is what I am supposed to do? Are these people calling me the messiah speaking to me from God, the Father, the Mother? What is going on?

Oh, my God.
And when Jesus tells Peter not to say a word, maybe Jesus is just looking for some time to get to the desert or the mountaintop, to give this more thought and prayer. “Quiet, Peter. Keep this to yourself. I need some time to understand what this means and what God is calling me to do.”

God, who are you?

And then, in the next passages, when Jesus know that there is danger and violence ahead that he needs to walk into, he rebukes Peter’s contradiction by telling him in the terms of the day to “Be quiet and don’t try to tempt me away from what I must do.”

Jesus came to know, I believe, what he was called to do. More and more he is renewed in ways that raise him as a Messiah and for many as the Messiah.

Today, for me, this is the Jesus that sustains me – maybe you, too. It is the Jesus who came to know God perhaps as no other ever had, and in ways beyond my understanding, Jesus has become one with God and the Spirit. It is this “presence of God and Jesus and the Spirit” that is now everywhere for me, and I can’t explain it any more, perhaps, than the Muslim, the Jew, the Native American, or believers in any tradition find their way to the God -- who I believe is One, beyond all the questions.

In the end, I know God in the feeble way I have tried to describe God. Considering that the struggle for God has been with us since creation I think I am not alone. And in the struggle and this place I have come to know God as a presence, yes – beyond all understanding and right here at my fingertips.

And, in the end, the peace and mystery come together out of a place of silence, which is also a place of grace. Perhaps no poet expresses this better than Rainer Maria Rilka:

From The Sonnets of Orpheus
First Part 1

A tree ascended there. Oh pure transcendence!
Oh Orpheus sings! Oh tall tree in the ear!
And all things hushed. Yet even in that silence
a new beginning, beckoning, change appeared

Creatures of stillness crowded from the bright
unbound forest, out of their lairs and nests;
and it was not from any dullness, not from fear,
that they were so quiet in themselves,

but from just listening. Bellow, roar, shriek
seemed small inside their hearts.
And where there had been at most a makeshift hut to receive the music,

a shelter nailed up out of their darkest longing,
with an entryway that shuddered in the wind—
you built a temple deep inside their hearing.

May that temple of grace and silence deep inside your hearing guide you well for the work you are called to do and the gifts you have been given to share. Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Rockin' the Boat

Rockin’ the Boat
©2008 Ray Bagnuolo

Readings: Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Seven Trillion Electron Volts or about enough energy to power a flashlight for – maybe – seven millionths of a second.

Small, we’re talking small here, but that’s what happens when you start looking at things closely. Small numbers, times many occurrences, make huge differences.

In this case, seven trillion electron volts is the amount of energy that is expended when two protons, traveling in opposite directions at near the speed of light come into direct contact. In that miniscule degree of a second, energy and particles are emitted that very nearly approach what happened at the moment of the Big Bang – only multiplied beyond consideration by all the protons present doing the same thing.

It is expected that on September 10, in a tunnel some 300 feet below Switzerland and France, scientists and engineers will guide those protons at one another, attempting to reverse nature and travel backwards in time to millionths of a second after the Big Bang when these collisions were exploding everywhere.

The circular tunnel is called The Large Hadron Collider of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). With a diameter 5.3 miles and a circumference of 16.8 miles, it will indeed accelerate and force these protons into direct contact at close to 186,000 mps (the speed of light). When that happens, conditions will occur that are believed will replicate those surrounding the Big Bang, some time 14 billion years ago, producing particles and elements rarely – if ever seen today.

At a cost of $8 billion and 14 years to build it, the Large Hadron Collider is a collaborative effort that is something of a scientific United Nations. Thousands of people, hundreds of institutes, and dozens of countries have contributed to engineer and build the tunnel and the two quite incredible “detectors” that will sit on opposite sides of the ring and through which the path of the protons and the residuals of their impact will be recorded and data disseminated for evaluation.

One of the detectors is called the Compact Muon Solenoid – weighing in a 12,500 tons, 48 feet high, and 75 feet long.

The other is dubbed Atlas – at 7,000 tons, 72 feet high, and 150 feet in length – it is the smaller of the two.

As I mentioned, when these protons collide, the energy releases/creates a new set of particles from the collision: hadrons, such as photons, protons, neutrons, pions, kaons, hadrons – and the most elusive of all- muouns

All this is being done in an effort, among other things, to find the missing piece – the “Higgs boson” as it is called that will hopefully explain the vagaries, the discrepancies in the Standard Model of the Universe, which says there are 12 basic particles of matter, four particles of energy, and the missing element – the Higgs boson..

It’s the search for the holy grail, so to speak, the discovery or discoveries that may lead to a single unified theory of the universe, the String Theory, which “ties” everything together – explains it all.

The outcome of the experiment may also prove that everything we (and the scientists) thought is flawed a little, seriously flawed, somewhere in between, or totally wrong.

Yet, these men and women, these nations and their resources are willing to take the risk, to enter into the unknown and all the trepidation that it sometimes brings with it – because, well, they can not do otherwise. It is their call. And it has grown on the hearts, and minds, and built and mounting on the shoulders of all those who have gone before them. In a very real way, they are being pushed by discoveries of the past as well as called by what is beyond.

And, isn’t this true of everything about us? All of us?

In each of our own sacred lives, each of the calls that we have been given, the talents and sought after talents that are in our genes to use or to find, as we are pushed by the energy of each unfolding generation to more than we know? To more than we see? To what calls us from beyond and within? Sometimes we find what we expected, but most of the time – we could never have planned the outcome. Still we move always into the unknown.

And, like the scientists going deeper and deeper into the smallest and smallest parts of what is to seek their answers, aren’t we more and more realizing that the answers we need and desire are inside of who we are, – available to us if we are willing to gather up the energy, time, and persistence needed to seek them out?

It was this I had in mind when I chose Romans from this morning’s selection of lectionary readings. Paul’s terrific when he tells his readers that they (and we) need to move on from this concept of God that is a descending and ascending God, the First or Old Testament notions of a three-tiered universe: the dead and underworld below, the canopy and water above, and the earth between the two, a model that worked to explain the science and theology of the times, which were for the most part were one. It made sense based on what they knew. Even when Jacob wrestled with the angel in our recent readings, the angel descended and ascended – for how else would an angel arrive and depart? Paul is nearly saying that, in reality, it wasn’t all that important how the angel arrived or was engaged by Jacob – just that it did arrive, was engaged, and changed Jacob to Israel, changed his walk as a result of his injured hip, reoriented the direction of a people and a nation to unfold again, in new ways for what was ahead. Just what Jesus does for each of us in our lives.

Just as it may be future scientists will change or redefine previously held positions following the outcome of the work with the Hadron Collider, here is Paul, years after Jesus’ crucifixion, building on all he knew before, all that was happening, and on his own unfolding energized conversion, suddenly saying something like:

“Hey, don’t get sidetracked with this “up and down” stuff – this stuff about who will ascend into heaven or who will descend into that abyss below, rising from the dead

up and down, down and up – that was fine for before, before we knew – but now we know -

It doesn’t matter,” he might have continued.

“Do you want to be justified in the eyes of God?
Do you want to know the energy and love of walking humbly with your God and being of service to others in your witness?

Then: confess – share – with others what it is that is in your hearts. That’s where you know Jesus and God. That’s where it’s at! Tell others. Tell them what you know, what you have discovered through Jesus Christ. Share with the world that you will find the answer you seek – by knowing Jesus as well, and you will discover, as we did – that we are all a part of the creation that has been touched by the same God, the God that sees no distinction between Jew and Greek. There are no longer any differences between us, once we know God, for the same God is the God of all!”

But Paul is not done; he goes further:

“And how will those who have never heard of such things to know them?”

And here is, I think, one of the most wonderful lines of Scripture in all of its verses. He replies to his own question by saying:

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

How beautiful, and wonderful, and amazing for those who have not known God to discover God at the hands an feet of those who carry the message – not up or down, but to one another, from one another, touching one another from a deep place of knowing God and inviting others in, as well as being invited in…amazing!

In other words, we are expected, if you read the Scripture in this way, we are expected to grow – as we go – in the presence of the Holy Spirit. We are expected to travel into new and un-chartered places, with the assurance that we are, indeed, blessed, justified, cared for, and guided. That we will be taken care of, always.

Can you feel the excitement of the oppressed of the times hearing such a message? Talk about energy!

Paul as much as tells generations, here and elsewhere in his writings, that when we collide with the ancient explanations of the past, we should expect sparks to fly and new directions to emerge, just like the particles and matter at the instant of light-speed contact. Expect the chaos and unknown and even the risk – and go forward and know that you will be just fine.

Matthew wraps it up for us with what might be the missing theological Higgs boson, placing it right before our eyes in the life and teachings of Jesus. See, Jesus is the string that goes beyond his times, through Paul’s, right on to today. We see Paul change and quite certain that he is right, and he is in many ways for his times – in his context, but Jesus travels even beyond him. Jesus’ message reaches out from the past to this moment. In our context. Telling us, too, be prepared –EXPECT - the boat to be rocked, in fact – rock it yourself, when needed – and fear not – for I will always be with you.

We know from the past readings that Jesus sent the disciples out on the boat, ahead of him. It must have been a busy and difficult time for Jesus. John the Baptist has been beheaded, Jesus has barely had time to get away, to be at peace and quiet – to grieve, recharge, think, and pray. Masses of people follow him; he and the disciples have just participated in the feeding of the multitudes in another magnificent example of the power of God unleashed in the heart that produces new levels of sharing and compassion, the likes of which had not been seen before. Energy? You bet!

So, seeking a bit of solitude, Jesus sends the disciples ahead – choosing to remain back and go of into prayer and meditation. And when the storm rises and the winds blow; when the water laps into the boat as the cold and wet set in; the fear of being overturned and lost takes thrusts its powerful and mighty hold on the disciples.

And then Jesus comes to the shore.

Is the first act of Jesus, returning to the shore, seeing the storm, knowing the tempest that is ravaging the hearts of the disciples with uncertainty and lack of direction – to calm the waters like we smooth out a sheet or a blanket?


Nope! Instead he just steps out onto the water like it was dry land on a sunny day and approaches them. And one of them, Peter, knowing inside of him for a fleeting moment, more than he knew a moment before, feeling something inside him coming together in ways that built upon all he had heard and seen with Jesus, says, “I can do this”…and he steps out onto the water!”

Caught up in that presence of God and Jesus and the exuberant awakening of his faith – he steps out and says, “Oh, my God…look at this, I am walking on water” and then, maybe just as quickly says, “Oh my God, I’m walking on water, I can’t walk on water, what am I doing, Oh, my God!” and he starts to sink.

And Jesus pulls him back up, enters the boat with him, and calms the waters – not by his command, but by his presence.

I wonder, later, how much Peter wished he had not given up or that he had “more” to keep going.

. I wonder how much he beat himself up for wondering why he just couldn’t get that faith that moved mountains.

I wonder how much Jesus loved him more for stepping out in the first place, sensing like a parent with a child taking their first steps – Peter’s steps into a real and growing faith movement.

I wonder if the miracle of what the disciples did as they moved through their time with Jesus, wasn’t in fact a miracle for Jesus, for him to see the growing edge of faith and belief in his message that was moving these men and women in ways they could never have imagined, and for which even Jesus might have wondered if they ever would have the idea.

Yet, as the disciples believed and acted on their beliefs, as they rocked the boats or were no longer afraid of the storms, as they unleashed the energy of their growing faith, I’ll bet Jesus more than once shook his head in wonder and with a smile, saying to himself, “It’s a miracle!”

I’ll bet Jesus says the same thing, each time we, in our own time, say, “No!” to what should not be and step out on faith, love, and compassion to change and right things. “A miracle, just a miracle! Look at them go! Woo-hoo!”

So, as we leave here, today, let’s think about how God is with us and how we are called in these days, in the best tradition of being disciples in our day, as the disciples were in theirs. Let us trust deeply in the God we know and who reveals God's self to us today and with no boundaries or limitations! Let us remember, too, that we are the growing edge of all those who have gone before us, charged with the energy and promise – even if unsure of the future.

Let the hadrons, the protons, the neutrons, and the Higgs boson fly, and take us where they will.

Let the energy of the Spirit from deep inside guide us with one another...

And, when needed – in times like now, in so many ways

Rock that boat –

For Jesus and the Bible tell us so.

Reference Note: NYT Science

Day by day, dear Lord of youThree things I pray:
To see you more clearly,To love you more dearly,To follow you more nearly,Day by day.

- St. Richard of Chichester

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Written on the subway walls and tenement halls…

Palisades Presbyterian Church, Palisades, NY
Sermon Delivered July 13, 2008
©2008 Ray Bagnuolo

Psalm 119:105-112
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

It was in the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy that Paul Simon composed the song “The Sound(s) of Silence.” He wrote it as an attempt to capture the heart of a nation reeling from the unthinkable.

Included in their night club and coffee house performances, Simon and Garfunkel performed “Sound of Silence” on an album they soon released, which subsequently flopped. Shortly afterwards, they broke up as a group and went their separate ways.

Unbeknownst to either Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel, their music label producer overdubbed the original with a bass, drums, and electric guitar and re-released the single in 1965. By January 1966, it was number one on the charts; the duo reunited and released a hasty album to capitalize on their success, and the rest is history.

And this song, in particular, is history. It is 18th on the most played song list of the 20th century and #156 on the top 500 songs of all time. Impressive, and not without reason.

I was thirteen or so when I first heard it. I had no idea that it so harmonized with the times and that its haunting depths would capture me every time I heard it or read the lyrics right up until today. It seems I am not alone in this.

At certain times, the song surfaces, as today. I am sure that it has come up here before in my comments, and I have more than once used it in school in any number of ways – to the delight of every group I have taught. In fact, after one lesson in which I first read the lyrics as a poem, discussed it with the class, and then wrote about it – I played the recording. You could have heard a pin drop. Even more interesting were the comments of parents and guardians that I received, about their children coming home humming “Sound of Silence,” much to their surprise and their own memories that it stirred.

Some messages are just like that. They don’t ever fade. The images they create linger long enough to become permanent in some way, even definitive about a way in which we see things. Sort of like a gospel…

For me, the lines that have always captured me are towards the end:

The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
and tenement halls
and whispered in the sounds of silence.

You know that I grew up in the City, in the Bronx. There was something about the juxtaposition of the word “prophet” and the “tenement walls” that linked God and the neighborhood in a way that was real to me.

There was something about the real presence of God in the streets on which we lived that was different than the experiences I had had of “religion” – in the church, in the parochial school, in the traditions and sacraments. That was all wonderful and mysterious and profound, but the concept of God in the streets, talking to us through others, coming out of the silence – or the noises of silence: well, it opened God to me in ways that I had never thought of before.

Without knowing it, I think I was having my first radical experience! And, I was noticing the response of some of those around me for the first time, the efforts to quell the rising tide of disappointment, disbelief, and dissent of the sixties. I was observing more and more the phenomenon of truth confronting power, yet I wasn’t quite sure where they divided or came together. Later I discovered just how much a chord had been struck and a seed planted in me.

That chord, today, is still difficult to describe – but in its essence, I call it the voice that each of us has deep inside: the one that is listened to and is spoken of.

You may remember me at one point talking about my seminary professor, The Rev. Dr. Barbara Austin-Lucas. She’s the one that said, “When you read the Bible it reads you.”

[Ezekiel 37:1-14 Valley of the Dry Bones]

The day I heard her say that – I knew exactly what she meant. That was it! It was that voice again. The one that you suddenly hear, when you are not expecting to hear one at all. The one that is so real that it prompts some kind of response. It’s the voice that creates that “pause” out of nowhere like the “beauty” of last week’s comments.

Even more, it’s that creative spirit that we all hear in the many ways in which we practice such things in our life.

So, when Dr. Austin-Lucas said that I probably heard nothing else for the rest of the class. Because suddenly then, as now, all those thoughts I had had about how God was and is; the questions; the feelings that certain things could just not be right or had to be right – all of a sudden they were given, at least, the possibility of being true – and not sealed tightly in the slammed covers of a book held high overhead like an icon or idol to be worshipped.

The experience of discovering God and prophets and God active in today’s world, rather than limited to the 66 Books or 1282 pages of the first Gutenberg Bible was an important spiritual passage for me. From there, it’s really not such a big leap to believe that God is still writing the Bible today and that we should keep listening, praying, and taking action.

I see none of this as an affront the authority of the Bible; in fact, I see this continued interaction with God and each other in this way as called for in the writings of much of the Scritpures.

The inner voice, that conversation that is initiated by the Spirit that is in us all, the God-given gifts of intellect, consciousness, and a deeper sense than we know - demands that we bring alive the teachings of Jesus today – in ways that meet the needs and conditions of our times, as Jesus did in his. This is not relativism, by any means but true transcendence from one time to the next with the same message of the Love of God, carried in the Good News, written for times from then to now, for places from the fields of summer, to our houses of worship, to the innermost of neighborhoods and tenement walls.

Such is the power of the Gospel to weave itself flawlessly into all times and creation, in all languages and the silence that precedes them – if we let it be what it is: God alive in this world calling us into service of one another, sharing the love that is unconditionally granted to us.

The psalmist in this morning’s first reading reflects this great and personal relationship of the author and his or her community with God. It is a relationship that is not only thoughtful, but the first line makes it clear that there is a call that emerges from the voice of God that we hear: “Your word is a lamp unto my feet.” Not a lamp unto my brain, but my feet. Upon hearing the words, we know what we are supposed to do, and then it is up to us to “step up,” so to speak. To bring our relationship with God into all of our lives and dealings with ourselves and all we meet. Think of what that means to this broken world: love, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, patience, understanding, acceptance… That is TRULY something radical!

In the restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by a the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence.

We are the agents who “split the night,” “touch the sound of silence,” and become that lamp unto the feet…helping to make sure the path becomes clear for ourselves and others to follow – and as the psalmist concludes:

“Your decrees are my heritage forever;
they are the joy of my heart.
I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever,
to the end.”

The vision, the knowing, the “Aha!” This is what we are called to do! It is our life in the many ways we live our life, tucked away in the deep knowing and sense of God within calling out to the others and God within them. It is, in fact, the ancient Sanscrit greeting: "Namasthe" - the Spirit in me greet the Spirit in you.

Nothing brings us to vibrancy in quite the same way as when we are in alignment, heart and soul with God and each other, inclining our hearts to perform God’s will, listening, talking with others, praying, and then taking action on what is still being revealed to us. Inclining our heart…to listen…to see…to hear…

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

When God calls us into the silence and visions of justice or hope or love – when God calls us over the expired boundaries of laws created long ago to ensure the survival of a race through purity codes for food, as an example, we need to listen in the now.

This world of ours is as divided now by what our religions teach us to do as any political regime’s mandates. Some of us exclude and divide, assuring ourselves and one another, that we are most right and others are most wrong – and we “shun” others in the name of God. How, in the name of God, could we do such a thing?

Where did we ever get such ideas? How did some places become so fallow? Well, it seems we didn’t listen.

In the parable of the sower, Jesus tells the gathered that seeds planted in the rich soil will grow a hundredfold, more or less. And then he says:

“Let anyone with ears listen!

“The one who hears the word and understands it will be blessed.”

Jesus didn’t then say, “So, here are the prescriptions and the proscriptions.” No, but he might have agreed with Simon and Garfunkel’s words:

“Fools,” said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”

He just might have…sung along...

As a teacher, I am always aware that my role is to provide the tools needed for the young people I teach to go out into their world prepared to think in effective ways, so that when they discover things in their lives that I could never imagine – in some way, I have helped them be prepared by being able to think – in a more intuitive way.

I have come to know that intuitiveness as the working domain of the Spirit – sometimes stifled by my own human condition tossing in stones, and thorns, and shallow soil. So I do not rely solely on the intuition, alone, for fear that it might be too much of my voice and not so much of God’s call. It’s the reason I need to be in community, prayer in community, worship, discussion, and even debate.

Still, there comes a time when all that is done - and one has to base their actions on their convictions. For me, it must always be about the other. I like my objects of comfort and time on the beach – maybe too much. But I do know that deep inside none of those things are as important as being faithful, true to the prophets’ voices all around me in this world of ours, the voices that speak deeply as they did to the psalmist or from Jesus, or the lyrics of a song and a time whose chord is struck by the path I have been given to follow.

A voice and a path, for me and others, that is alive here as any prophet or psalmist, poet or evangelist.

I think it is much more difficult to resist the voice of God in our lives, however we know God, once we have accepted the fact that God does, indeed, continue to speak to us. Once that happens, the light shines unto the feet, the harvest is assured to be abundant in ways beyond counting, and the silence is truly filled with the sounds of God’s great joy… welcoming and inviting all to follow.