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When the Church doesn't want you, but Bravo TV does

Updated: May 26

This is the first Sunday of our early summer Pop Culture sermon series. Did you know that? Well now you know that. When I was thinking about what piece of pop culture to pick for this pop culture sermon series, I thought about what pieces of pop culture are popular, I thought about what's polite and what's universal and what's acclaimed, and considering all of that, I opted instead to be honest. Your priest is obsessed with the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.

The Real Housewives is a Bravo TV franchise that casts groups of 5-7 women in a particular city at a time, usually who find themselves among the city's elite, and has cameras follow them around to see what happens. The Real Housewives has franchises all across the country, in Orange County, New York City, Atlanta, New Jersey, D.C, Beverly Hills, Miami, Potomac, Dallas, and Salt Lake City. Each franchise-- each city-- has this thematic underpinning that is unique to that city's culture and context, Real Housewives Beverly Hills is a story of Hollywood, D.C. is a story of politics, New York as just sheer cosmopolitan wealth. But Salt Lake City, the newest franchise and perhaps the smash hit standout, has this iridescent vein of religion running straight through the middle of it. And the interplay of these women's lives with religion is both deeply heartening and also, frankly, not unrelatable.

Each of these six main women have unique and complicated relationships with religion, the way each of us does,,,

Meredith Marks practices a cultural Judaism with a little dash of Mormonism.

Jen Shah converted to Islam from Mormonism so she could practice her husband's religion with him.

Mary Cosby is a Pentecostal church leader and evangelist.

And Heather, Whitney, and Lisa each have lived and contended with Mormonism in different ways. Whitney Rose was excommunicated from the church. Heather Gay left the church on purpose after a long process of discernment. Lisa Barlow is building a 21st century hybrid Mormon faith while at the same time owning a tequila company.

Besides the screaming matches in Michelin-star restaurants and the $70,000 bracelets getting lost in the Palm Springs airport, the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City bears a real honesty about what it is like to grapple with the church, especially a church that is high control, authoritarian, literalist, patriarchal, as much church is. These women show what it is like to take your agency back from the church, spar with the church, be rejected by the church, speak openly about the church's secrets, and to figure out what it means to have your faith sometimes in spite of The Church.

We may be quick to say that we don't have those problems in the Episcopal Church, and we are lucky that for the most part, we don't, though we are not perfect, but more and more, the people who are coming to the Episcopal Church are from churches that uplift those problems as theological truths, that harm to people in systematic ways. Church Hurt, Church Trauma, Church Rejection are rampant, as is the work of people who are processing and unlearning harmful theology. There are people who have learned that they cannot trust the Church, who have learned that the Church doesn't want their whole selves, who have come to expect that the Church will flatten them, invalidate them, disappoint them. The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City is,, a character study in those experiences.

It matters that we figure out how to summon and maintain an authenticity and honesty and realness to fuel our evangelism and mission and hospitality so that we can make a space for folks to learn to trust Church again, to trust Christians again. There is an element of Real to the Real Housewives that the Church could stand to learn from.

One of the main characters on the show, Heather Gay, the one who left the Mormon church, wrote a book called Bad Mormon -- the writing, the writer's block, and the book tour are a recurring plot theme in seasons 2 and 3. In Bad Mormon, she describes her experiences growing up in the Mormon church, desperately wanting to be a Good Mormon, a Good Mormon Wife, a Good Mormon Mother, and compromising big parts of herself in order to meet the expectations of her church and her community. Overlapping her longing to be Good was the yearning to express herself and the parts of herself the Church had deemed not good: her passions, her curiosities, her ambitions, her questions, her very identity. Beginning as soon as her early childhood, Heather learned that Church was not a place for Real Heather Gay, but rather only for Good Mormon Heather Gay. And if my work out in Fredericksburg has taught me anything, especially among college students and young adults, that is an all-too-common story.

The story of the religious leader Nicodemus in today's Gospel passage is a funny pairing for a TV show like this, but quite apt. Nicodemus is a religious leader, he has a public image, he is accountable to other religious leaders and to a religious institution and system. And something stirs in Nicodemus that he wants to meet this purported messiah, Jesus, but he knows that he cannot be seen greeting this rabblerouser with questions and an open-mind, so he sneaks out to do it at night. Jesus answers his questions and gives him a proper dragging in the process, what do you mean you're a religious teacher and you don't know what I'm teaching you,, (what did they even teach you at religious teacher school!)

In the chapters before and after John 3, Jesus throws the money lenders out of the temple, he skips town because the local religious leadership is unhappy with him, and he even has to disavow the Samaritan woman of her belief that his kind isn't supposed to mingle with her kind. Jesus's ministry here with us is not simply to build up the religious establishment but to disturb it. And it is precisely the systems wherein people like Nicodemus can't ask their questions, wherein people like Heather Gay can't be themselves fully, wherein people like Whitney who still love God and want to love God get cast into the outer darkness, that I imagine Jesus would want to disturb today. Sometimes it is the Church that has the hardest time dealing with the gritty, messy incarnated lives we live. And that a gritty, messy incarnated life would be deemed too much to handle for a church who worships an incarnated God is a contradiction that leaves a great many people unsure of the Church's credibility.

Near the end of her book, Heather describes the process of auditioning for the TV show, and she recalls the casting directors spending months and months on the phone with her, on zoom, in person, asking her everything about her, her past, her family, her interests, her ambitions, her hurts, her friendships, she describes feeling like all they wanted was all she had to give which was her own truth. This Real Housewives, that we might be tempted to deem trashy and irredeemable, was, in her own words, the first time in her life that she was sought to be known simply as herself, not before in her Mormon family, not in her Mormon church, not in her Mormon marriage. The Real Housewives was the first time she was auditioned and cast for the role her full, whole self.

It is deeply a part of our theology the belief that the Body of Christ is a big cast list and the roles are simply and only each and every one of our truest selves. And there is no audition! We have already been cast, and here we are together in it. There are far too many places in this world -- sometimes work, sometimes school, sometimes family, sometimes church -- that feel like we are made to audition for idealized versions of ourselves. It would be lofty to claim to that we are perfectly proficient in this casting-us-as-ourselves Body of Christ-making work already, we are a work in progress. But I think that the trick is not in finding a Church that has perfected this work already, but rather in finding a Church that knows that it is the work.

It is some of our most important work here to do the work of Belonging, to make a community where people do not have to sneak out at night to be themselves before they button up to join us on Sunday morning. And to be frank, if the work of Belonging was all the work we did, it would keep us busy forever. It's work that takes courage, patience, forgiveness and apology and humility, it's work that requires showing up, it's work that means we'll sometimes be being annoyed and frustrated, and in the midst of conflict showing up courageous and honest and compassionate all the same. If this was all the work we did -- making a community where people could be their fullest selves, where they could bear their questions and uncertainties and doubts, where we could deftly and gently handle the grittiness and messiness of real life -- we would be busy forever, and I wonder how we would grow in that work if we really put some elbow grease into it.

I'm gonna be honest, you probably should not watch the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City unless you really love reality TV and have a stomach for thirty minutes of yelling per episode. You might, I do, but you might not. But what it gets right is that religion is a complicated, messy, traumatic thing for a lot of people,, that there is boatload of religious hurt out there in the world looking for a place to heal, and a dearth of places to do that healing. What this show gets right -- what Heather Gay the Bad Mormon gets right, is that in this blessed, wonderful, holy life, we are all cast to be precisely, exactly, and only ourselves. And thank God for that. Amen.

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