Sunday, October 05, 2008

Dispatches from the Periphery

Earlier today I delivered the following homily to the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community - an intentional faith community composed of people who up until March of this year had worshiped at the South Minneapolis parish of St. Stephen’s.


Dispatches from the Periphery
A Solidarity Sunday Homily by Michael Bayly

Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community
October 5, 2008

First Reading: Philippians 4:6-9

Brothers and sisters: Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.

The Word of God spoken through Paul.

Second reading: An excerpt from Jeannie McPhee’s Solidarity Sunday homily, St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, October 8, 2000.

The Church into which I was baptized and to which I have devoted much of my life and energy regards me as “objectively disordered,” with “radical incapacity to contract marriage,” and judges my relationship with my partner as “intrinsically morally evil.”

Those who know me know that this is not true. . . I can endure the verbal assaults and insults I have received based on my sexual orientation. I can overlook it when I walk in the Pride parade past someone carrying a sign damning me to burn in hell. I can withstand the accusations of frightened and homophobic people.. . . But having the teachings of Jesus manipulated, perverted, and used against me and my gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters, even if it is sincere, is too much to bear.

Paradoxically, it is this same Church who has taught me that the Church itself is wrong about homosexuality. This is the Church who taught me that God is present in all relationships that are loving, that God is revealed in all relationships that are liberating and life-giving. God is present and revealed in all relationships that embody the qualities of justice, kindness, and equality.

Jesus came for the oppressed of his time and lives in solidarity with the oppressed today. Those who are oppressed and those who work on their behalf know the liberating power of love to convert hardness of heart and transform the world. What is objectively disordered and morally evil is not homosexuality, but the inability and unwillingness of the whole Church to hear the truth, to act fearlessly, and to stand in solidarity with us.

The Word of God spoken through our own Jeannie McPhee.

Gospel: Matthew 21:33-43

Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people: “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then the landowner leased it to tenants and went to another country.

“When the harvest time had come, the landowner sent servants to the tenants to collect the produce. But the tenants seized the servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned still another. Again the landowner sent other servants, more than the first; and the tenants treated them in the same way.

“Finally the landowner sent the heir to the estate to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son they said to themselves, ‘This is the one who will inherit this land. Come, let us kill him and get the inheritance.’ So the landowner’s child was seized, thrown out of the vineyard, and killed.

“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will happen to those tenants?” The chief priests and elders replied, “The landowner will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give the owner the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was God’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kin’dom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kin’dom.”

The Word of God spoken through Matthew.

Homily Introduction

Friends, it’s a great honor to be here this morning, “breaking open” today’s readings in the context of Solidarity Sunday.

My name is Michael Bayly and I’ve been associating, in one way or another, with St. Stephen’s since 1997. For many years I’ve been a member of Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ and thus absent at times from this community. Recent events, however, have brought me back, and I’m currently serving on the interim leadership team and have greatly enjoyed working with other community members in planning our recent retreat.

I’ve also experienced a renewed sense of connection and commitment to this community through my work with a number of folks from The Progressive Catholic Voice, as together we’ve produced The Spirit of St. Stephen’s, a documentary video that celebrates the past and envisions the future of what many of us recognize as a Catholic community in transition.

One final point by way of introduction: since 2003 I’ve served as the executive coordinator of CPCSM, the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities – an independent, grassroots coalition that for almost 30 years has worked to create environments of respect, acceptance, and safety for Catholic LGBT persons and their families. I believe that like this community, CPCSM engages in a profoundly catholic endeavor. We don’t limit God’s presence and action in the world, but are open to discerning such presence and action in the lives and relationships of all. You’d be surprised by how threatening that is for many within a church that claims to be universal, i.e., catholic.

Okay, at this point I should let you know that from now on in this homily, I’m going to use the word “gay” when referring to LGBT people, for no other reason than the fact that “LGBT people” gets to be rather cumbersome in a presentation like this.

Homily: Dispatches from the Periphery

In talking about today’s readings in the context of Solidarity Sunday, I’d like to start by noting that Solidarity Sunday began in 1995 when the Board of Directors of DignityUSA, the nation’s largest Catholic gay organization, recognized that 70-80% of American Catholics supported equal rights for gays and lesbians. It was decided to invite these people to join in solidarity with gay Catholics and to work with them to end verbal and physical abuse – including the “dehumanization” of gays by “religious leaders.”

We heard some of the Vatican’s abusive and dehumanizing language in our second reading. I would advise ignoring such language, in part, because our first reading challenges us to think only about what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, and worthy of praise. Unlike the biblical texts that call for the death penalty for gay people or the dehumanizing documents of the Vatican, our first reading today reflects not the ignorance of a specific time and culture, but something of the mind of God that transcends time and culture and speaks to all of us – male and female, gay and straight. It’s a liberating text. It opens us to new and expanded ways of thinking about God and God’s presence and action in human life. For me, and no doubt for many of you, that’s the hallmark of a sacred text. It facilitates liberation and transformation that is experienced both personally and communally.

Our dear Jeannie McPhee was clearly attuned to such sacred texts – so much so that she became the author of many of these texts herself. Her 2000 homily, of which we just heard an excerpt, is an inspired, prophetic and sacred text.

The words, indeed the very lives, of many gay people serve as sacred texts in our living tradition. And these texts impart a very clear message, and that message is this: contrary to what the Vatican insists, gay people can and do experience sexual relationships marked by justice, wholeness, and life-giving love. We can, in other words, discern truth, honor, justice, purity, love, and graciousness in these relationships.

Furthermore, we recognize and celebrate such qualities as a result of what we, in the words of Paul, have learned, received, heard, and seen in that boundless realm of love we call God. It’s a realm that often calls us beyond the known and challenges us to think “outside the box” of convention and orthodoxy. It’s in this realm that many of us – gay and straight – have allowed our lives to be transformed into living testimonies of integrity and grace.

Sadly, many in positions of influence within the Church refuse or are incapable of recognizing and celebrating such living testimonies. Indeed, a devastatingly clear case can be made that when it comes to acknowledging and honoring the sacramental reality of gay people’s lives and relationships, the institutional component of Roman Catholicism, throughout its history, has demonstrated a profound lack of wisdom and compassion.

We all know just how bad it has become in our own archdiocese. (1) And it’s really no wonder that gay people are leaving the church in unprecedented numbers. They simply do not feel supported or validated even by communities that once prided themselves on their welcoming and affirming reputations. (2)

This to me is a clear indication that the “official” Roman expression of Catholicism has reached a point where it is incapable of producing the fruits of God’s kingdom for the vast majority of people who identify as “Catholic.” Why the “vast majority”? Because it’s not just a gay issue. It’s an integrity issue. And it impacts anyone who takes seriously the living tradition of our faith. Having said that, it can’t be denied that it is issues of sexuality and gender that often facilitate this crisis of integrity.

This is because when it comes to such issues, the majority of those in positions of authority within Roman Catholicism are like the tenants in today’s Gospel reading. They’ve been entrusted with an awesome responsibility to discern and articulate the presence of God throughout the people of God. And yet when God comes and speaks to them in the lives of women and of gay people, their response is one of rejection and abuse. And because the Christ Spirit that was incarnated in Jesus lives in each one of us, it is crucified anew whenever the sexist and homophobic words and actions of the institutional Church cause abuse, pain, and even death.

Yet we can also experience resurrection.

I came back to this community because I’m convinced that if there’s any hope for the Catholic Church to be a sacrament of God’s unconditional love for all, it’s to be found within communities like this that have moved, in a sense, to the periphery of the tradition and thus to a place where its members can be open to the Spirit beyond the life-denying clericalism and doctrinal fundamentalism that dominate and control the center. Our welcome of gay people to this Catholic community is unambiguous. We can and do “walk the talk” – but only because we’ve consciously walked to the periphery.

I take great courage and hope in what theologian Leonardo Boff has to say about the periphery. He writes that: “It is on the periphery where life flourishes in all its exuberance and as a challenge, [it’s on the periphery] where those who hope and live at the margin of all organization, find the necessary soil for the creativity and emergence of what is new and not yet taught.” (3) Sound familiar?

Using St. Francis of Assisi as an example, Boff observes that “the periphery is where the great prophets arise, where the reforming movements are born, and where the Spirit flourishes. The periphery possesses a theological privilege, because it is there that the Son of God was born.”

My friends, I believe Christ continues to be born in the lives, relationships, and faith communities that find themselves, either by choice or by force, on the periphery. In this current time of crisis and opportunity within the Church, it’s no longer only women and gay people living and prophesizing from this holy place, but anyone and everyone who recognizes that the hallmark of our Catholic faith is not rigid adherence to church doctrine but the seeking and embodying of compassion and justice within the context of a pilgrim church still very much growing into truth.

In conclusion, I think we’re all familiar with Pope Benedict XVI’s statement that he wants a smaller, purer Church, and that unless people can support everything the hierarchy teaches he wants them to leave. Interestingly, such an attitude even has some conservatives worried, with one recently declaring that “the outcome will probably be the de facto collapse of the Church in America. . . . Traditionalists will have won the internal Catholic power struggle, mainly because the progressives will have drifted away. But in the end, the small band of traditionalists will find themselves isolated in ‘a new Catholic quasi-ghetto,’ with about as much influence on the culture as the Amish . . .” (4)

I read this and cannot help but think of Jesus’ words: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

Such people are, of course, those repelled by the idea of living in any type of ghetto; who, instead, are drawn to an authentically catholic Church open to the Spirit; a Church unafraid of journeying, of engagement, of growth and of change. My sense is that the birthing and rising of such a Church is happening right here in this place and in places all across the globe. We’re not “drifting away,” but very intentionally creating Eucharistic communities in the spirit of Jesus and at the growing edge of our tradition.

Ultimately, I don’t think we should concern ourselves too much with questions of who’s in and who’s out of “the Church,” but rather with seeking to discover where “church” is happening; where, in other words, are people being affirmed in their lives of integrity and love; where are people being challenged to be agents of positive transformation in our world; where are they being nourished and renewed by the presence of Christ within and among them. I believe this community is one such place where church is happening.

And I cannot help but think of Rosemary Radford Ruether’s observation that the more the hierarchy stagnates and retreats, the more numerous and freewheeling are the creative initiatives that are springing up at the grassroots (which, of course, is another metaphor conveying the same meaning as the periphery).

It would seem that yet again, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

My friends, when I say that this is God’s doing, and that it is truly amazing in our eyes, I know that you stand in solidarity with me as a gay Catholic man and as a member of this community of faith and integrity. For this I give thanks and praise to God.

Michael Bayly
October 5, 2008

Above: With (from left) Beryl Wolney, Julie Koegl, and Theresa Mueller,
three of the inspiring elders of St. Stephen’s - October 5, 2008.
(Photo: David McCaffrey)

Beryl and Julie feature in The Progressive Catholic Voice documentary,
The Spirit of St. Stephen’s: Celebrating the Past and Envisioning the Future
of a Catholic Community in Transition. To view the first installment
of this video documentary, click here.


(1) Just how bad has the situation become? Well, in the years since Jeannie McPhee spoke her inspired words, we’ve witnessed a steady decline of “solidarity” with and for gay people in our local church. For example: Gay support and social groups that once met regularly and announced their meetings in church bulletins have either disbanded or gone underground. Dignity Twin Cities continues to be viewed and treated as a pariah by the chancery and by parishes. One longstanding parish initiative, the annual Pride Prayer Service, has been abolished; the parish-based Inclusive Catholic network has dissipated; a lesbian daughter and her 82-year-old “cradle-Catholic” father are forbidden from sharing on Catholic property their story of reconciliation; the chancery actively promotes the “pro-chastity” ministry known as Courage, along with a scientifically discredited organization that likens homosexuality to alcoholism. And, finally, we have an archbishop who not only vigorously campaigns in the civil arena against the legal recognition of same-sex unions, but who is on record as saying that Catholics who stand in solidarity with their gay loved ones in living lives of integrity are themselves cooperating in a “grave evil.” Yet despite such negative developments, there are signs of hope and resistance.

(2) Case in point: recently the pastor of a local Catholic parish considered by many to be “gay friendly” was interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio. At one point he was asked if he felt free to say what he really thinks about gay issues in the Church. He responded that he does, but that he’s learned to choose his battles and therefore would not share what he really thinks. Sadly, it seems that for many in positions of leadership, gay people are not worth “the battle.” And I say this with the utmost respect for all the good work that some have accomplished. Yet without doubt, when it becomes time to “walk the talk” or, in other words, when there’s an opportunity to go public and declare solidarity with gay people, many balk. And the message that gay people get from this is that we are expendable.

(3) Boff, Leonardo. Francis of Assisi: A Model for Human Liberation (Orbis Books, 2006), p. 101.

(4) Shaw, Russell. “Please Look Behind the Bishops’ Potemkin Village” in The Catholic World Today Report (February 2008).

For other homilies I’ve delivered, see the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany
Praying for George W. Bush
On the Road with Punk Rockers and Homeless Mothers
Something We Dare Call Hope
Soul Deep
The Harvest Within the Heart
Somewhere in Between

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
To Whom the Future of the Catholic Church Belongs
What It Means to Be Catholic
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
Beyond Papalism
The Holarchical Church: Not a Pyramid But a Web of Relationships
The Two-Sided Catholic Crisis
A Smaller, Purer Vision of Church - And Why it Won’t Work


Mark Andrews said...

What next for St. Stephens? Going the "Spiritus Christi" route like the folks in Rochester, NY did?

Elaine said...

What a well-crafted homily!

If we really were to follow the gospel message of love and peace as brothers and sisters, we would have little to complain about. How unfortunate that this puts us on the edge of Christianity, or over the brink sometimes.

Daniel said...

Powerful stuff! It takes chutzpah to accuse the church of inflicting violence, abuse, pain and even death. Unfortunately it has a long history of just that. Good for Michael! And St. Stephens.