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.