Friday, December 29, 2006
Of course, such divisions are part of the warp and woof of the history of the Church, including its tendancies toward imperialism or, at least, its willingness to benefit from the imperialism of the dominant culture in which it is embedded; our own Anglican Communion is hardly unique in that regard. Imperialism necessarily gives rise to division and opposition, and that is certainly being played out in the post-colonial churches of the Anglican Communion.
It seems to me that one lesson those of us of a more "liberal" persuasion might learn from our "evangelical" sisters and brothers, is the importance of developing personal and institutional relationships rooted in shared faith and witness with Global South Anglicans. I wonder if the current impasse isn't rooted, in part, in the failure of "liberal" congregations, dioceses, and the national Episcopal Church to develop shared missionary ties with the churches of the Global South (and, as Archbishop Barahona, the Primate of Central America, reminds us, the Global Center, which doesn't always share the perspective of the Global South). Our "evangelical" sisters and brothers have been more effective at building international relationships and defining us "liberals" as heretics in the process, than we have been at building direct relationships ourselves.
It is time for that to change. I hope it isn't too late.
Friday, December 22, 2006
Last week, I participated in a Washington Post real-time online chat about divisions in the Episcopal Church around issues of church politics, sexual identity, and biblical interpretation - a combustible combination that I typically try to avoid. But the Post offered me a chance to explain contemporary change in religious communities and I saw it as an opportunity to help people see some important shifts that are happening around us.
Many people - including most of last week's questioners - assume that the Episcopal Church is engaged in an argument between two religious parties: liberals and conservatives. I have long doubted the wisdom of two-party paradigms, believing that two-party analyses primarily serve the interest of partisanship. In the chat, I responded to one participant with the following:
I do not believe that there are only two sides in this dispute - I can identify five distinct groups.
Yes, there are two parties in tension: Old-line liberals and radicalized conservatives. This is the fight we most often read about in the media. However, you point out a third possibility, a centrist party that is trying to navigate between the two extremes. The extremes aren't the whole story.
However, there are two additional groups, and these two are far less noticed. I refer to these groups (they don't have a clear "party" identity) as "progressive pilgrims" and "emergent conservatives. " These two groups tend to see "issues" like this one as secondary concerns to the practice of Christian faith and are more concerned with things like hospitality, living forgiveness, practicing reconciliation, learning to pray, feeding the hungry, caring for the environment, and maintaining the Anglican practice of comprehensiveness (being a church of the "middle way"). They may lean slightly left or slightly right on "issues," but reject partisan solutions to theological problems. Both progressive pilgrims and emergent conservatives are far more interested in unity than uniformity, and they appreciate diversity in their congregations as a sign of God's dream for humanity to live in peace.
These comments are about much more than the Episcopal Church or any single issue. They are observations about the emergence of new tendencies and groupings in American religion. These groups are not some mushy middle of conflict-avoidant people. Rather, they are new positive expressions of religious identity going beyond the old definitions of liberal and conservative.
Centrists exist as a moderating group between the old partisan divides, seeking to find healthy, creative space for the common good. The two relatively new groups, the "progressive pilgrims" and "emergent conservatives" represent post-liberal and post-conservative alternatives to the older parties. These groups are not identical, but they share some common tendencies. All three attempt to resist the radical politicization that has marked American denominations since World War II while trying to reground the church on spiritual practice, serious engagement with scripture, and generous Christian tradition. They reject old arguments, old policies, old stereotypes, and old ways of doing business.
As I said in the Post chat:
If the centrists, the progressive pilgrims, and emergent conservatives can come together and offer their distinctive spiritual gifts in the midst of this conflict, I think the Episcopal Church may be able to move forward.
If these groups forge friendships, finding fellow walkers on other paths, it would do more than change the Episcopal Church - it could change both our national religious and political conversations.
In the last year, it has become increasingly clear that Sojourners is serving as one of the places where these three groups come together around practicing justice - and learning to appreciate and hear one another's perspectives. Opening space for new conversation changes conversation. And offering new paradigms for seeing what is happening in the world around us opens our imaginations to creative solutions and new possibilities as we seek to enact God's dream for humankind.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
At the same time, President Bush confirmed yesterday his intentions to increase the size of the standing army and marine corps, recognizing that the military isn't capable of meeting the multiple demands currently being placed upon it.
My concern, as Iraq continues to spiral downward, is that the administration will expand the War on Terror to Iran, seeking to shut down its support for sectarian violence in Iraq and elsewhere. Is this naval deployment, and the call for an expanded military, the first steps in that direction? Or is that too much to expect a lameduck president facing a Congress controlled by the opposition to be able to pull off? I'm not ready to underestimate the imperial ambitions of this administration.
Now, more than ever, it is time for the peace movement in the United States and abroad to accelerate the pressure for an end to the War on Terror, which is a self-perpetuating dynamic of violence feeding violence. With public support for the war at an all time low, a new Congress coming into office, and increasing casualties, we have an opportunity through nonviolent witness to make a difference in the world. End the occupation. End torture. Restore a sense of honor and decency to our nation for the sake of the world.
May our prayer be that of the angels, "Peace on earth and goodwill to all people."
Thursday, December 14, 2006
It is imperative, therefore, that efforts by governments and NGOs, including churches, to alleviate global human suffering bear in mind that success requires addressing the cultural as well as economic barriers to human flourishing. In this, the Anglican Communion has a vital role to play, especially on behalf of women and increasingly (though controversially) on behalf of gay and lesbian people. This is a difficult challenge, fraught with the danger of new (old) forms of imperialism. Yet, the challenge must be creatively and patiently addressed, for the end of global poverty and the emancipation of women are intrinsically related.
This is why the U.N. Millenium Development goals include achieving universal primary education for children (including girls), promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, and improving maternal health. Women are always the thin edge of the wedge of human liberation. As it goes with women, so it goes for LGBT people in particular. The election of the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church provides a powerful symbol of hope and an opportunity to link the cultural and economic aspects of the churches' responsibility to minister to "the least of these. "
Monday, December 11, 2006
A sermon for Advent 2.
“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God . . . For God will lead
Both the reading from Baruch and the reading from Luke that we heard this morning refer to yet another text: the Word of the Lord spoken to the prophet Isaiah.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to
Isaiah speaks these words of comfort to a people suffering in exile in
This vision of homecoming is appropriated by Baruch more than three hundred years later, after the return of the exiles to
Thus, the promise of homecoming must be renewed: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory of God!” This promise was fulfilled, in part, by the Maccabean revolt against
Then, along came the
Not long afterward, Luke’s Gospel appeared conveying the message of yet another prophet, John the Baptizer, who once again appropriates Isaiah’s promise of homecoming for his own time and place. John begins to gather a new community that is preparing for the renewal of
Do you see a pattern here? Exile and return, occupation and liberation, alienation and homecoming: this seems to be the way of the world. It isn’t merely a long ago and far away story. It is our story. It is the story of millions of refugees around the world: Palestinians, Sudanese, Iraqis, Afghanis, fleeing occupied territories they long to reclaim as home. It is the story of brave
It is the story of a young transgender woman with whom I met recently, in exile here from her homeland in the Southern United States, alienated from her family and afraid that they will attempt to have her institutionalized. She grieves the home she has lost even as she wonders if it is possible to make a home here. It is the story of an anonymous meth addict, who locked himself in our garden bathroom last Sunday afternoon and refused to leave, all the while trying to inject himself, leaving behind a broken needle, a blood splattered room, and a hole in the door that matched the hole in his soul; a God-shaped hole that no amount of drugs can fill. How many exiles like him wander our neighborhood?
We are all characters in the story of exile and return. Sometimes the home for which we long is a place on a map; sometimes find ourselves exiled from the landscape of our own heart. Too often, we live in exile from both. We long to come home to our people, to our family, to our self. Even more, we long to come home to God, in whom we find our true and lasting rest.
Thus, we find ourselves here again in the season of Advent, listening to the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “O God, make a way for us to come home again. Let us, all of us, see your salvation. We’re tired of wrapping ourselves in threadbare garments of sorrow and affliction. Dress us instead in the beauty of your presence, in the warmth of your peace and justice, in the splendor of your compassion and forgiveness. Please, please, dear God, bring us home again.”
We will continue to play out the pattern of exile and return, until all of us accept that our liberation, our homecoming, our national and personal security, can not be established by Cyrus, or Caesar, or whoever the current emperor may be; it can not be secured by Maccabees or American revolutionaries, or religious terrorists (not all of whom are Muslim; indeed, some wear purple); it can only be secured by the Messiah who practiced nonviolent love, the Compassionate One who is coming again, and again, and again, for as long as it takes until we all come home.
We have seen this Messiah, the Christ, in Jesus, who came not as emperor or terrorist, not as executioner or victim, but simply as a human being. His presence continues in the new community of those seeking to follow his way of becoming fully human, so that the fullness of God may dwell among us as it did in him. He has come to show us the way home by making his home in us, that no matter where we are, we may be clothed with the glory of God and the robe of justice.
It is time to take off the garment of sorrow and affliction. It is time for us to repent of our clinging to the false security offered by the world and its continuous cycle of exile and return. It is time for us to renounce our identification with powerlessness and with privilege. It is time to come home to our full humanity in Christ, who has made his home with us.
This is the renunciation, the repentance, to which John the Baptizer calls us. It was symbolized this week by our bishop, Marc, who called us to walk with him on the path of peace that leads us home. On Thursday, a couple hundred of us marched with him down from the privilege of Nob Hill, through the powerlessness of the Tenderloin, to embrace our humanity and protest the injustice of the War on Terror in the courtyard of the Empire.
In celebrating the Eucharist in the plaza of the
When we are at home in the Christ who makes his home in us, the fear and greed and revenge that drive the cycle of exile and return loses its hold on us. We then discover the creativity to resist evil through nonviolent love, the capacity to be at home even in a foreign land, and the passion to welcome others home too. This is the good news of the Gospel, that we who are in exile can return home once and for all.
The cycle of continual exile has been broken. We no longer have to participate in its destructive and divisive power. The welcome feast has been prepared and a place at the table has been set for you. It’s time to come home. Amen.
Friday, December 8, 2006
The entire march, liturgy, and civil disobedience were marked by joyful solemnity and a spirit of nonviolence. It was a wonderful opportunity for people from around the diocese to act together in faithful witness of the Prince of Peace to whom we give our ultimate allegiance. It was also good to do so with Jewish, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Quaker and humanist sisters and brothers who share our commitment to justice, peace, and nonviolence. None of us ceased being who we were; we were not reduced to an imaginary generic humanity, sans tradition or history. Yet, for a few hours, we were able to speak with one voice for an end to this unjust and brutal war.
Episcopal News Service and Civic Center also provide good coverage of the requiem Eucharist and protest, including SFMike's picture of my family celebrating the Eucharist.
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
I was very moved by the participation of the congregation in the healing rite. Almost everyone came forward for prayer and anointing. We too easily forget the heavy burdens many still carry in the age of AIDS.
On Saturday morning, we joined our diocesan family at Grace Cathedral for the ordination of 15 priests and 5 deacons. Among them was the Rev. Jeff Donnelly, who was sponsored for Holy Orders by our parish. Fr. Jeff is pictured here just before saying his first mass on Sunday morning at St. John's. I was struck by the aptness of the homily at the ordination liturgy, which was preached by Dr. Rod Dugliss, dean of our diocesan School for Deacons. Rod spoke of the need for ministry to be grounded in an inner disposition of compassion and joy: broken hearts, and hearts on fire. The greatest temptations we face as ministers of the Gospel are to harden our hearts, becoming defended from the suffering of the world, or to allow the flame of holy love to die out, becoming joyless in our service to others.
These are certainly temptations with which I struggle in ordained ministry. Serving an inner city neighborhood is challenging. On top of everything else this weekend, we celebrated a service of Advent Lessons and Carols on Saturday night, beginning our preparation for the Mystery of Christmas with an inspirational and evocative medley of music, scripture, and poetry. It was beautiful and moving.
And then Sunday after mass and a meeting, READY to go home, I discovered that a man had locked himself in the bathroom. He would not respond, so I called the police and waited outside for the officer to arrive. Eventually, the man emerged, with a syringe clenched between his teeth, and strolled off down the sidewalk. I locked the gate, went back inside, and discovered the bathroom a wreck: blood all over the walls and floor from this meth addicts attempts to inject himself. Soiled paper towels and cigarette butts all around. I locked the bathroom door (which one enters directly from our garden) and prepared to go back inside the church.
Suddenly, the man returned, hauling himself over the garden wall, screaming about having left his wallet in the bathroom. I was frightened, worried that he might still have the needle with him, and fled out the back gate. By the time the police officer arrived, he had kicked in the bathroom door, recovered his wallet and left. I was shaken. I filed a police report and went home. I returned on Monday and wiped the blood off the walls as best I could, and disposed of the broken needle that was the immediate cause of the mess.
I was and am struggling with feelings of anger and fear. My heart wants to be defended, rather than broken open in compassion: for both this addict and myself. A good and wise friend pointed out to me that this meth addict already has one foot in the grave. He is not someone with whom I would wish to trade places. Yet, he, too, is a beloved one for whom Christ died and rose again. I will continue to try to pray for him, try to remember that a broken heart is one open to the mercy of God.
And I will try to blow or, rather, to allow the Holy Spirit to blow the embers of holy love into a roaring fire again. I will remember Fr. Jeff's hands shaking as he invoked the Holy Spirit over the gifts of bread and wine for the first time on Sunday morning, remember the gift and joy of Holy Orders and the love of the One who has given Jeff, and me, this gift. Perhaps if my heart is broken open a little wider after this weekend, the fire of love will glow a bit brighter and true joy will come again. I've been told it tends to do so about this time each year.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
Friday, December 1, 2006
Tonight we gather to observe World AIDS Day. We gather to remember, to mourn, to celebrate, and to advocate. We come to this place for healing, and for the strength to continue to be agents of healing and reconciliation in a broken world. It is in light of this that I invite you to consider with me the extraordinary Gospel lesson we just heard, the story of the healing of the Centurion’s boyfriend.[i]
Notice that the translation of this text refers to the paralyzed person as the Centurion’s “servant.” The Greek word here is pais, which can mean “servant” or, more properly, “servant boy,” but in other contexts is the Greek word used to refer to the younger lover of an older male. While the construction of same-sex love in Hellenistic culture posited such an age difference as normative, it is quite likely that the use of “boy” to refer to one’s beloved in Greek is more akin to the English use of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” as a term of affection regardless of the age of the lovers.
That this is the case here is underscored by the contrast between the use of pais to refer to the object the Centurion’s special concern, and the use of doulos, the Greek word for slave used to designate those under the Centurion’s command, the people he bosses around. Just any old slave would have been unlikely to garner the Centurion’s attention. He was moved to approach Jesus because of his love for his boyfriend.
If this seems like a strained reading of the story, consider that Matthew’s Gospel regularly makes subversive use of Gentiles, who bear all the marks of stereotypical paganism, contrasting their faith with the faithlessness of the religious authorities. The magi who pay homage to Jesus at his birth are pagan sorcerers of whom the rabbis taught: “He who learns from a magus is worthy of death.” Matthew’s bold claim that these foreigners recognized the Messiah, whom the religious leaders rejected, is remarkable.
Remember too the Syrophoenecian woman in Matthew 15, a worshipper of Baal whom Jesus refers to as a kunariois, a dog, which is slang for a temple prostitute. A woman, a gentile, and a prostitute: she was way beyond the pale of acceptance according to the law. And yet, her daughter is healed because of her audacious faith, pressing Jesus to transcend his own limited sense of mission to include this outsider.
And so it should not surprise us that Matthew’s Gospel, which plays brilliantly on the Hellenistic Jewish trope of Gentiles as sorcerers, idolaters, and sexual deviants, depicts a Roman soldier with a male lover as the exemplar of faith. It is this man who entrusts himself and his lover to Jesus in utter humility, without reservation, who is held up as our role model.
Jesus says of the Centurion, “Truly I tell you, in no one in
Jesus is telling us is that God does not divide up the world between insiders and outsiders the way we do. In fact, God turns things upside down, such that the outsiders are frequently those most open to the presence and power of God, while the pious are stone cold deaf to the Word of God that liberates and heals without distinction. Thus Jesus declares to the Pharisees, then and now, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the
It is not our moral superiority that heals us, but rather our trust in the mercy of God. In the age of AIDS, who knows that better than the countless men who have cradled their sick boyfriends, grieved their dead husbands, or entrusted themselves to the Christ who cares for them in the form of their beloved. Think of the men and women from our parishes who for 25 years or more have been such faithful agents of Christ’s healing: it takes my breath away. I think of Jane, who, after her son Steven died of AIDS, went on to help literally hundreds of other young men die with dignity. I think of the men who buried their lovers and then immediately opened their homes to care for their dying friends. I think of people, like my friend Cary, who had made his peace with God and was on his death bed, only to be resurrected by the development of anti-retroviral drugs. Now, he races in the AIDS Ride each year and is preparing to become a deacon in the Episcopal Church.
Then there is Bishop Gene Robinson, who was among the first people to go to
On this World AIDS Day, let us honor the truth that the tragedy of AIDS, despite its devastating impact, has given rise to powerful expressions of compassion and healing, and that it is men and women on the margins – like the Centurion and his boyfriend – who frequently have demonstrated the most faithful response to this ongoing pandemic. In the midst of so much death, the power of love has shone with an astonishing brightness.
Fenton Johnson, writing of his lover, Larry’s, death from AIDS, reminds us that “Grief is love’s alter ego, after all, yin to its yang, the necessary other; like night, grief has its own dark beauty. How may we know light without knowledge of dark? How may we know love without sorrow? ‘The disorientation following such loss can be terrible, I know,’ Wendell Berry wrote me on learning of Larry’s death. ‘But grief gives the full measure of love, and it is somehow reassuring to learn, even by suffering, how large and powerful love is.”[ii]
Isn’t that ultimately the message of the Cross? How large and powerful God’s love is, willing to suffer with us, with us Centurions and our boyfriends, with us who are sick and dying, whether from AIDS or something yet to be revealed, all of us frail mortals upon whom God lavishes such devoted care. That Love will always heal us, though not always in ways that we can anticipate or control.
Shortly after Larry’s death, Fenton found himself driving to Muir Woods with his mother, reflecting on their memories of Larry, of love, and of loss. And then, his mother, rural
“I always thought of myself as tolerant and open-minded. I grew up with people who were gay, though of course back then we didn’t use that word. I knew some people in our town were gay, everyone knew they were gay, but I didn’t think much about that one way or another. Just live and let live, that’s my way of being in the world. And then you told me you were gay, and I guess I’d suspected it all along, and I just prayed that you’d stay healthy and find yourself a place where you could be happy. I prayed for all that and I was glad to see you get yourself to
“This speaking,” writes Fenton, “is the sacred thing, the gift from the dead to the living.” From the death of his lover came the resurrection of his relationship with his mother, bringing a new sense of intimacy, acceptance, and love. This was not the healing he was expecting, or even hoping for, and he never could have imagined what it would cost him. But even Larry’s death served to demonstrate how large and powerful love is.
Our challenge, today and everyday until there is a cure, is to demonstrate how large and powerful love is in the midst of AIDS. Like the Centurion, our love for our boyfriends, our daughters, our neighbors, our sons, our wives, for the whole human family created in God’s image, must be deepened by a humble trust that God loves us, has commissioned us to be agents of Christ’s healing, and has given us everything we need to do this work.
Let it not be said of us, “Truly, I tell you, in no one in the Church have I found such faith.” No, let us make our mantra these words of Jesus: “Go, let it be done for you according to your faith.” Amen.
[i] My reading of this text is indebted to Theodore Jennings, Jr., The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament (
[ii] Fenton Johnson, Geography of the Heart: A Memoir (
[iii] Johnson, p. 234.
Thursday, November 30, 2006
A Response to "An Appeal to the Archbishop of Canterbury"
Some bishops and dioceses of the Episcopal Church have requested that the Archbishop of Canterbury provide what they have variously called "alternative primatial oversight" or an "alternative primatial relationship." In consultation with the Presiding Bishop, the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed that a number of bishops from the Episcopal Church meet to explore a way forward. A first meeting took place in September, and a second meeting in November developed the following proposal that seeks to address the concerns of those parishes and dioceses which for serious theological reasons feel a need for space, and to encourage them to remain within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.
1. Taking seriously the concerns of the petitioning bishops and dioceses, the Presiding Bishop, in consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury, will appoint a Primatial Vicar in episcopal orders to serve as the Presiding Bishop’s designated pastor in such dioceses. The Primatial Vicar could preside at consecrations of bishops in these dioceses. The Primatial Vicar could also serve the dioceses involved on any other appropriate matters either at the initiative of the Presiding Bishop or at the request of the petitioning dioceses.
2. The Primatial Vicar would be accountable to the Presiding Bishop and would report to an Advisory Panel that would consist of the designee of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Presiding Bishop’s designee, a bishop of The Episcopal Church selected by the petitioning dioceses, and the President of the House of Deputies (or designee).
3. This arrangement for a Primatial Vicar does not affect the administrative or other canonical duties of the Presiding Bishop except to the degree that the Presiding Bishop may wish to delegate, when appropriate, some of those duties to the Primatial Vicar. The Primatial Vicar and the Advisory Panel shall function in accordance with the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church.
4. Individual congregations who dissent from the decisions of their diocesan leadership are reminded of the availability of Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight and its process of appeal.
5. This arrangement is provisional in nature, in effect for three years, beginning January 1, 2007. During that time, the Presiding Bishop is asked to monitor its efficacy and to consult with the House of Bishops and the Executive Council regarding this arrangement and possible future developments.
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Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Assemblyman Mark Leno (D, San Francisco) is reintroducing marriage equality legislation at a press conference on Monday, Dec. 4, at 10:00 am at the State Capitol Building in Sacramento (Rm. 1190, Governor's Press Room). As you may know, the State Legislature passed this law last year, but the Governor vetoed it. The California Council of Churches is recruiting clergy to stand with Leno during this press conference as a visible witness of the faith communities' support of marriage equality for LGBT people.
I will be attending the press conference and encourage other clergy to join me. This is an important witness to offer to the State, especially in light of the many clergy who will oppose this measure. Please attend and pass the word on to others!
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Walking With Others in the Path of Peace
Eucharist in Remembrance of All the Dead in Iraq
December 7th, San Francisco Federal Building, 450 Golden Gate Avenue
Join Bishop Marc Andrus and members of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, and other peaceful people of faith, as we commemorate all who have died as a result of U.S. led hostilities in Iraq. A procession will leave Grace Cathedral at 12:30 p.m., and the Eucharist will begin at 1:00. The Holy Communion portion of the service will be held in front of the Federal Building's main entrance as an act of civil disobedience. Watch EpiscopalBayArea.org for more information, or contact Sean McConnell at email@example.com. There are ample opportunities to participate without risking arrest.
Friday, November 24, 2006
The Episcopal Church, which is an autonomous member church of the Anglican Communion, has included sexual orientation in its non-discrimination canon governing access to church offices. It largely has left decision making regarding the qualifications of candidates for ordination as bishops, priests, and deacons to local dioceses. Most Episcopalians are quite convinced that gay and lesbian clergy make their vows with utter sincerity and in keeping with a faithful, though not always literal, interpretation of Holy Scripture.
Bishop Robinson was elected bishop of
Bishop Robinson did not refuse his election because it wasn’t his decision to make. It was the decision of the people of
Bishop Robinson has taken up his cross. The Episcopal Church has taken up its cross. Our Church is now enduring the consequences of bearing with discrimination, disdain, and demonization in solidarity with queer people. The way of the cross is painful, confusing, even frightening at times. But I am confident that new life, Resurrection life, is being offered through the faithfulness and courage of all-too-human disciples of Jesus like Bishop Gene Robinson. Bless you Gene!
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matt. 10: 40). Amen.
In Jewish tradition the story of God testing Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, is known simply as the Akidah, the “binding.” This refers of course to Abraham’s binding of Isaac and placing him upon the altar to be sacrificed. On another level, however, I think it refers also to the binding of Abraham’s conscience. Abraham faces a terrible double bind in this story: he is asked to choose between his relationship with God and his relationship with his son. At its heart, this is a story about binding and unbinding, about how God works to unbind our conscience and set us free to receive the gift that God has promised us.
Those of us who are gay or lesbian can readily understand what it means to have a bound conscience. We know the dilemma: choose between your relationship with God and your sexual orientation. As James Alison has noted, this gets expressed in many ways. He writes that
A bound conscience is a sense of being formed by a double bind or a series of double binds. For instance: ‘My command is that you should love, but your love is sick’; or ‘You should just go away and die, but it is forbidden to kill yourself’; or ‘The only acceptable way for me to live is a celibate life, but if they knew who I really was, they wouldn’t allow me to join’; or ‘Of course you can join, but you mustn’t say who you really are’; or ‘You cannot be gay, but you must be honest.’ . . . In other words, two instructions are received as on the same level as each other, pointing in two different directions at once, and the result is paralysis.
There is perhaps no better example of such binding than John Smid, Director of Love In Action, an “ex-gay” ministry, who offers the following words of advice to the teenagers in his reparative therapy program, Camp Refuge: “I would rather you commit suicide than have you leave Love In Action wanting to return to the gay lifestyle.” How is that for a double-bind? “I love you, you’re better off dead.”
The story of Zach, a sixteen year-old whose parents committed him involuntarily to Camp Refuge, demonstrates the result of such “love” in action. Zack entered the camp earlier this month, but managed to blog about his experience. In his last post online, one week after his incarceration at Camp Refuge, he wrote the following:
My mother has said the worst things to me for three days straight . . . three days. I went numb. That's the only way I can get through this . . . I pray this blows over. I can't take this . . . no one can . . . not really, this kind of thing tears you apart emotionally . . . I'm not a suicidal person . . . really I'm not . . . I think it's stupid - really. But . . . I can't help it, no I’m not going to commit suicide, all I can think about is killing my mother and myself. It's so horrible. This is what it's doing to me . . . I have this horrible feeling all of the time . . .
This is the kind of paralysis that results from the binding of one’s conscience: as Zack put it, “I went numb.” Peter Toscano, a graduate of Love In Action, describes this binding as a “biblically induced coma, with a toxic mixture of fear and shame.” Peter’s “treatment” included a mock-funeral for a 19 year-old fellow member of the program. “We actually laid him out on the table,” says Peter, “so we could talk about what a shame [it was that] he didn’t live his life right.”
I imagine this young man laid out on the table, much like Isaac, a victim about to be sacrificed on the altar. When our conscience is bound by double-binds, the very possibility of life, much less abundant life, is sacrificed. We become complicit in our own victimization. We lie down on the table and pretend we are dead. It is easy to be scandalized by this state of affairs, to find it a stumbling block to our ability to accept either that God loves us or that we can experience authentic love with anyone else. How can we possibly trust God’s promises to us when we are paralyzed by such double binds as: “I love you, you’re better off dead?”
Now this is precisely the sort of situation in which Abraham finds himself in the story of the Akidah, the binding of Isaac. What I want to suggest this morning is that, at its heart, this “text of terror” is really about the undoing of our conception of God as terrible, as one who places double-binds upon us. The heart of the story is the unbinding of Isaac, and the unbinding of Abraham’s conscience. This story marks the dawning of an understanding of God that leads directly to the prophet Micah’s insight that God desires mercy, not sacrifice, and culminates in the astonishing words of Jesus that “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
The story of the Akidah begins at a place where many of us may find ourselves in our own faith journeys: struggling with a seemingly divinely imposed double-bind. Abraham is being tested by God to determine whether or not Abraham will be faithful in his relationship with God. The double-bind takes the form: trust me, sacrifice your son.
In Abraham’s case, this is an especially vicious double bind: remember that God’s promised blessing to Abraham takes the specific form of offspring, of his being father to what will become a mighty nation, Israel, which will itself become the vehicle of divine blessing for the whole world. Isaac is the fulfillment of that promise. Abraham is being asked to sacrifice the tangible, beloved blessing that he holds in his hand, for which he has uprooted himself and struggled through many hardships to receive.
Now, putting aside for the moment speculation about the nature of God and what kind of God would test someone in this way, I ask you to risk the vulnerability of acknowledging that we all experience ourselves as undergoing such testing: of struggling to unbind our conscience caught between irreconcilable imperatives that challenge our faith, whether or not such double-binds come from God. My mother tells of being a Roman Catholic schoolgirl, crying at night because she was sure that her Protestant friends were going to hell. Her conscience was trapped in a double-bind that took the form: "love your neighbor, God condemns your neighbor to hell." We all have such stories. We can all relate to Abraham’s dilemma, whether we are Abraham or Isaac, whether we are the Roman Catholic schoolgirl or her Protestant friends.
Today the Episcopal Church is struggling with a double-bind that takes the form: "remain in the Anglican Communion, denounce gay and lesbian people." We are being asked to choose between maintaining the church’s unity and affirming the dignity of every human being, as if these are mutually exclusive terms. It seems that throughout history, from Abraham until now, someone is always trying to bind our conscience, to test us to see whether or not we are worthy of God’s promised blessing. Is this someone God? How should we respond to this state of affairs?
Notice how Abraham responded. When told to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering, Abraham said nothing. He simply backed his bags, took his son and two servants, and set out for the place in the distance that God had shown him. He did not engage in argument, he was not defensive, he felt no need to justify himself. He held his promised blessing close to his heart, and walked right through the middle of the double-bind.
Abraham refused to accept the terms of the dilemma: "trust me, sacrifice your son," even though he couldn’t see a way out of it – yet. The turning point of the story is Abraham’s conversation with the young men and with Isaac once they arrive at Moriah, the place of sacrifice. He tells the young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” That God would require him to sacrifice Isaac is never really an issue for Abraham. They will worship God together: Abraham cannot conceive of communion with God coming at the cost of communion with Isaac anymore than we can conceive of communion with God coming at the cost of communion with lesbian and gay people.
Then Isaac asks an innocent, heart wrenching question, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham gently replies, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” “God will provide” – a more literal rendering of the original Hebrew would be “God himself already sees the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” God sees what Abraham and Isaac cannot see, or sees already what they will come to see only later – that God requires mercy, not sacrifice. God has nothing to do with the binding of our conscience. God has everything to do with the unbinding of our conscience, and already sees a way out of the double-bind before we do.
The irony of this story is that the testing of Abraham, horrible on its face, is not about Isaac per se, but rather about God testing Abraham to see if he believes that God is testing him! In other words, how will Abraham respond to the double-bind? Will he become the victim or the executioner? Or will he trust that God already sees another possibility, providing a way to unbind Abraham’s conscience?
What is so remarkable about Abraham’s response is his absolute confidence in God’s mercy, and his complete willingness to trust what he cannot know or control. God sees what Abraham cannot see, and Abraham is willing to turn over to God’s care that which he cannot resolve on his own. Abraham is able to relax into God’s love, trusting God’s promise even when the fulfillment of that promise seems on the verge of being taken away. At the same time, God places enormous confidence in Abraham, depending upon him to act responsibly with the gift he has been given, the wonderful promise of Isaac that has been entrusted to him for the blessing of the whole world.
A Christian reading of this Jewish story sees another meaning in Abraham’s statement: “God already sees the lamb for a burnt offering.” That lamb is Jesus Christ, who died refusing to accept the double-binds placed upon people by religious and political authorities, and whose resurrection releases us from the burden of those double-binds. Jesus demonstrates in his life, death, and new life that God comes to unbind our conscience, to set us free to receive the promised blessing of abundant life without any preconditions.
It is not that we must change in order to receive God’s love, but rather that, having accepted that love, we will be transformed in ways that we could not possibly imagine. We, like Abraham, have been entrusted with a promise, a gift whereby we may become a blessing to the whole world. That gift is our identity as beloved children of God, bearer’s of God’s presence and blessing. Resting in God’s love, we can offer our gift with confidence and joy.
As we mark Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Freedom Day, the true freedom that we celebrate is the unbinding of consciences burdened by those who would say to us: “I love you, you’re better off dead” and “God loves you, you cannot be yourself.” In response to such diabolical double binds, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Amen.
 James Alison, “unbinding the gay conscience” in On Being Liked (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003), p. 103.
Friday, November 17, 2006
- Apophthegmata Patrum
In his book, The Monks of Mount Athos: A Western Monk's Extraordinary Spiritual Journey on Eastern Holy Ground, M. Basil Pennington, OCSO, remarks again and again on the centrality of the Spiritual Father (Elder) in the spirituality of the Orthodox tradition. The Gerontas (Greek) or Staretz (Russian) is a holy man or woman (Gerontessa) to whom one submits in obedience for spiritual direction. According to the Hegumen (Abbott) of Simonos Petras Monastary on Mt. Athos, "The faithful go to church for the Services, Baptism, Eucharist, Penance, but for their spiritual life they go to an Elder." (Pennington, p. 104)
This is not to deny in any way the great value of liturgical and sacramental practice. It is simply a recognition that faith finally must be internalized and experienced; thus, it can only be fully communicated in interpersonal encounter. Although spirituality flows from doctrine (according to Orthodoxy) it must be lived. "Second hand" religion must become "first hand" religion, and for "first hand" religion one must go to a Spiritual Father or Mother.
Pennington's book is full of marvelous insights into the relationship between the Elder and his (or her) spiritual progeny. Such relationships are a much needed antidote to the individualism, narcissism, and solipsism of much of what passes for "spirituality" today, without any touchstone in a living tradition embodied by holy people. I'm grateful for my own Spiritual Father, whose gentleness, wisdom, and love have strengthened my own faith immeasurably.
It isn't easy to find a Spiritual Father or Mother. So much of our culture militates against their development and creates resistance to their acceptance. Our truncated notion of freedom (doing what I want, when I want, how I want) blinds us to the fact that true freedom is exercised on the basis of truth, discernment of reality, and that such discernment requires a trusted and venerable guide or guides. Perhaps the practice of sponsorship in 12-step Recovery programs like Alchoholics Anonymous is an attempt to fill this need.
Among the Orthodox, an Elder is not necessarily an ordained person or the Abbott of the monastary; in fact one's Abbott and one's Elder in the monastary are frequently two different people. It is important in our time, I think, to recover this tradition of the Elder. All of us who exercise pastoral ministry can be edified by the wisdom gained from its observance. As Pennington writes,
"In my contact with the Spiritual Fathers [at Mt. Athos], I am eager to get as much as I can. But in their practice, they are content to give the disciple but a word and let him chew on it for a time and then return for another. The disciple in his reverence considers it a privilege to be able to approach the Gerontas and receive a word. The Fathers realize that growth and insight come from God and they are willing to abide his time. I see that in working with my sons I have been too eager to see them move on, too eager to impart knowledge. For the future I will try to move more at God's pace, be content to give a word, and let it be used by him as he sees fit. Also, I note that the Fathers are slow to give their time to the disciple, not out of any unwillingness to give or lack of openness to the disciple. But they have engendered in them this reverence and contentment with a word. And they realize they can better serve their sons by prayer and sacred reading - growing themselves - than by a lot of talking. I should have reverence for my own time and guard it with due care and not let it be taken headlessly. Yet the Fathers do not hesitate to spend moments in leisure with the brethren, enjoying pleasantries, etc. There is a full humanness about them." (Pennington, p. 50)
Although written from a monastic context, there is much here for lay and ordained "Elders" in a parish context to ponder as well.
Monday, November 13, 2006
I imagine that many of you, like me, have been following the unfolding tragedy of Pastor Ted Haggard. The media and, perhaps, the public it ostensibly serves, have a voracious appetite for scandal, and the combination of sex and religion makes for a rich feast. Add a touch of hypocrisy, and you have a gourmet meal.
Haggard was a leading evangelical clergyman, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and pastor of a one of the largest mega-churches in Colorado. Time Magazine named Pastor Haggard one of the most influential evangelicals in America; and in our country, that is saying something! One of the ways in which he used his influence was to scapegoat and demonize lesbian and gay people; using us as a wedge issue to promote a conservative theological and political agenda.
Sadly, Pastor Haggard’s denunciation of gay and lesbian people masked his anxiety and self-loathing with respect to his own sexuality. Unable to accept his same-sex desire with honesty, he split off his sexuality and projected it on to gay and lesbian people in a distorted and monstrous form. He attacked in others what he could not admit about himself. His desire went underground, becoming a dirty secret to be acted upon in ways that became a self-fulfilling prophecy of shame.
It is hardly surprising, then, that we should discover Pastor Haggard in a tryst with a male prostitute, fueled – I imagine – in equal parts by selfishness and self-hatred. It is easy to condemn Pastor Haggard, whether conservative or liberal, gay or straight. Most condemn his infidelity and dishonesty. Some condemn his same-sex desire. Many, especially, perhaps, many lesbian and gay people, condemn his hypocrisy. He does seem to press a button for a great many people, though the buttons differ.
This morning I would like to hold up Pastor Ted Haggard, not as a scapegoat in reverse, but rather as a mirror. Instead of making him the object of our own projections, let us have the courage to see ourselves in him. The truth is that we all have our secrets. We all carry around more shame and pride than we care to admit. Surely, those of us who have known the suffocating confines of the closet can understand the weight of confusion, secrecy, and self-hatred burdening Pastor Haggard.
Pastor Haggard, who devoured gay and lesbian peoples’ houses while making long prayers for the sake of appearance, has received already the greater condemnation. It is the condemnation of his conscience. He does not need us to stand in judgment of him, nor are we fit to do so.
What strikes me is the way in which Pastor Haggard’s story reflects my own grandiosity. There is something within me that makes me want to be less than human, or more than human, but never simply human. Perhaps you know what I mean. How much time do you spend thinking about how you are better than, or worse than, those around you? How much time do you spend comparing your "insides" to other peoples’ "outsides" in ways that make you feel inferior? How often do you find yourself judging or belittling others in order to make yourself feel superior?
This see-sawing back and forth between pride and shame, between victimization and entitlement, leads us into a web of illusion, dishonesty, and self-centeredness that makes it very difficult to see ourselves, or God’s will for us, with much clarity. It leads us to act in ways that violate our conscience and harm others. We convince ourselves that we deserve whatever we want, regardless of the cost to others. Grandiosity is to individuals what imperialism is to nations, whether its stems from a sense of inferiority or from a sense of superiority. How do we come to see ourselves whole? How can we integrate the shadow and the light within us and within our world? What is the remedy for our grandiosity?
We would do well to recall the words of St. Anthony the Great: “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.’” The great masters of our tradition have always taught that humility is the chief virtue and fruit of our spiritual practice. “Humility is the only thing we need,” said Elder Herman of Mt. Athos, “one can still fall having virtues other than humility – but with humility one does not fall.”
Humility is the state of accepting our condition as human beings. Authentic humility is the virtue of having a right sized opinion of ourselves, of seeing ourselves as we truly are. It isn’t about thinking that we are less than we truly are. Here I think of Pastor Haggard’s letter of apology to his congregation, in which he described his sexuality as “so repulsive and dark that I’ve been warring against it all of my adult life,” as “the dirt that . . . would resurface” after periods of abstinence. This is “all or nothing” thinking. It reflects the kind of grandiosity that is just the opposite of humility. With humility we accept that we are no better and no worse than anyone else.
In a sense, humility isn’t something that we achieve or acquire; it is simply accepting the reality of who we are. Brian Taylor notes that “The word human is related to the words humus (organic and animal waste) and humble. To be truly human, therefore, is to be of the earth: an earthling, if you will. To be human is to be humble, to know that we are children of the earth and nothing more . . . This is true humility: to know whereof we are made, what our limitations are, and our importance in the perspective of all of life.”
This is why Elder Herman says that humility is all we need, and that with it we cannot fall. With humility, we can make decisions rooted in the truth about ourselves and God’s will for us, free from the pride and shame that fuel grandiosity and illusion. So, humility is simply acceptance of our true condition.
And yet, such acceptance can be difficult to – well – accept. Thus Abba Tithoes said, “The way of humility is this: self-control, prayer, and thinking yourself inferior to all creatures.” That is to say, there are certain practices, concrete actions we can take to cultivate humility. Self-control, prayer, and “thinking yourself inferior to all creatures” are not ends in themselves, but ways to become humble.
Self-control is the practice of guarding our thoughts, of living with awareness, so that we can exercise freedom in making decisions rather than simply compulsively acting out unconscious drives. It is not only self-denial, though it does mean saying “no” to destructive thoughts and actions. More positively, it is about developing the capacity to say “yes” to those thoughts and actions that are grounded in truth and bring balance, peace, and joy to our lives. This is the fruit of a regular practice of meditation, and of accountability to a trusted spiritual director, friend, or community.
Prayer is the means by which we offer our self - all of our self - to God the Holy Trinity, becoming mindful of the divine matrix of relationship in which we live, and move, and have our being. Praying for ourselves and for others makes us mindful of our needs and of our gratitude. Ceaseless prayer is a way of staying connected to all things in Christ in a conscious way, providing some perspective on our place in the whole of life.
“Thinking yourself inferior to all creatures” seems to flatly contradict what I said earlier about not thinking ourselves better than or worse than others. I think, however, that Abba Tithoes is not speaking of “inferiority” in a moral sense, but rather in the sense of being willing to be of service to all. It is analogous to the practice of some Zen monasteries, in which the abbot is the only one who takes out the garbage. The point is to cultivate a healthy detachment from status consciousness, which creates barriers to service.
Self-control, prayer, service: these are the practices intrinsic to humility, to the acceptance of our humanity. When we are humble, it is then that God’s power can work through us. “God descends to the humble,” said Abba Tekhon, “as waters flow down from the hills into the valleys.” Humility is the natural state of receptivity to God’s presence in our lives.
The presence and power of God working through us is like the widow of Zarapeth’s jar of meal and jug of oil that could not be emptied; it is like the poor widow’s penny worth more than the large sums of the rich. When we are humble, like the widows in our scripture stories, then we open up space in our lives for God to be all in all. Then all our invidious distinctions, our comparisons, our judgments (including our self-criticisms), are entrusted to God’s infinite mercy. True humility allows us to write the kind of letter to Pastor Haggard that our brother, Christopher Evans, sent this week.
Dear Mr. Haggard,
I cannot pretend to know the struggles you have undergone, nor the pain you have endured these many years regarding your sexuality. I cannot imagine the sorrow and exhaustion you must experience after all these many years. I cannot understand the fear and anxiety you must be facing at this time.
I am sorry for the way fellow Christians are treating you as untouchable, an outcast, an irredeemable sinner, willing to set you aside outside the camp. I am sorry for the way you are being portrayed by members of the gay community as the hypocrite incarnate. I am sorry for your many years of struggle and suffering and self-loathing.
God dearly loves you, Ted Haggard, without reserve or “yes, buts…” or conditions or programmes to reshape you in others' images. As the Book of Wisdom found in the apocryphal readings declares, “Yes, you love everything that exists, and nothing that you have made disgusts you, since, if you had hated something, you would not have made it.”
You, your wife, and your children are in our prayers. If you are ever in San Francisco looking for a house of Christian worship, you are most welcome to join us at St. John the Evangelist at the corner of Julian and 15th Street. Worship begins at 11:00am. Ask for “Chris”, and I’ll be glad to worship alongside you.
Your brother in Christ,
 Quotes from the Desert Fathers are found at http://www.balamandmonastery.org.lb/fathers/indexsayings2.htm.
 Brian Taylor, Becoming Human, pp. 51-52.
 From http://regula.blogspot.com/2006/11/as-closet-empties-values-versus.html
Wednesday, November 8, 2006
Love Human and Divine: A Meditation on the Occassion of the 50th. Wedding Anniversary of Cecil and Leah Forbes
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
They give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away." (Song of Solomon, 2:10-13) Amen.
As Bill Countryman points out in his lovely meditation, Love Human and Divine, the Song of Solomon has often been a source of some consternation to Christians. Here we have, right smack in the middle of our canon of Holy Scripture, an enchanting, evocative, and highly erotic love poem. It has been cause for more than a little embarrassment, not least because in the Song the lovers are not married.
As Countryman notes, the tendency has been to “distance its overt sexuality by insisting that it is an allegory of the love of God for the church or for the individual soul. Christian liturgy has largely ignored it and seldom assigns it to be read at public worship. Too much heavy breathing!”
While such allegorical readings are not “wrong,” they don’t tell the whole story by a long shot, and in fact miss the central point: eros is to be celebrated. The desire for passionate, physical connection with another human being is not necessarily a distraction from a proper focus on loving God. It has a revelatory power all its own. Erotic love is itself a path to holiness. Love of God and love of another particular, human being are by no means mutually exclusive.
Notice that in the passage we heard this afternoon, the beloved speaks of her lover calling her to arise, to become aware of and delight in the beauty of the present moment. Passionate love is depicted here, not as a self-centered, exclusive preoccupation with the beloved, but as a way to wake up, to become fully alive and connected with the beauty and wonder of creation. Passionate love evokes awe and as such transcends, without at all diminishing, the particularity of the beloved. The particular passion of the lovers for each other can awaken in them a passionate connection with the whole creation.
In their fierce mutual possession and dispossession, their self-offering and reception of each other, the bond between lovers can become, over time, an indissoluble seal, of greater value than any amount of wealth we can imagine. The power of this seal lies not only in its binding of the lovers to each other, but in its capacity to root and connect them in the earth and in God. The fire of passionate love is one with the creative fire at the heart of the universe.
Of course, the flame of passionate love waxes and wanes; the trick is to keep it from going out! Recently, a good friend of mine, who was married in April, was speaking about how lonely he felt and how much he missed his wife during the week now that she is taking classes in the evening. He has taken to riding his bike from their home in Oakland near Lake Merritt all the way to Cal State in Hayward, so that he can surprise her in the hallway after class.
"How very sweet," I thought. But after twelve years of marriage and an eight year-old son, I’d be delighted if my husband took a class so I could have an evening to myself! I can only imagine how Cecil and Leah feel after 50 years of marriage, three kids, and the mutual omnipresence of retirement. “Arise my love and come away [with me]” can readily become “Arise my love and go away – I need some space.” Or in the words of that immortal show tune, “I told you I love you, now get out!”
The trick, if there is one, to keeping the fire of passionate love alive is to remember that the bond of love is not restrictive, does not close us in on the beloved in a suffocating way. Rather, the bond of love between two persons is a door that opens onto the love of God in all things.
Here, we would do well to recall today’s Gospel admonition: “You are the salt of the earth,” “You are the light of the world.” Our loves, even in their passionate particularity, are meant to add flavor to life for others, to illuminate the world with the light of love. This is what Cecil and Leah have done so magnificently; keeping their relationship passionately salty, brilliantly illuminated by love, so that their good works might benefit others and glorify God. We love God through our love of particular persons and things, and vice-versa; not for our own sake, but for the sake of the healing of the world.
Thomas Traherne has expressed this beautifully in one of his poems:
“What life wouldst though lead?” he asks. “Wouldst thou love God alone? God alone cannot be beloved. He cannot be loved with a finite love, because He is infinite. Were He beloved alone, His love would be limited. He must be loved in all with an illimited love, even in all His doings, in all His friends, in all His creatures. Everywhere in all things thou must meet His love. And this the law of nature commands. And it is thy glory that thou art fitted for it. His love unto thee is the law and measure of thine unto Him: His love unto all others the law and obligation of thine unto all.”
It is our great joy to celebrate Cecil and Leah’s half-century of marriage, not because longevity is a virtue in and of itself, although it is true that many things of value can only be learned patiently by attention over time; we celebrate their marriage because it has served us all so well as a sacrament of God’s love, a sign of that “illimited love” through which God loves us in all things.
Leah and Cecil, it is indeed “thy glory that thou art fitted for that love.” We bask in that glory today, giving thanks for your life together and for the way in which it reminds us that we too, are fitted for that same love, human and divine. Amen.
 L. William Countryman, Love Human and Divine, p. 21.
 Thomas Traherne, Centuries, 1.72 quoted in Countryman, Love Human and Divine, pp. 33-34.
Sunday, November 5, 2006
What are we to make of this business about loving our enemies? I get the idea of loving God and loving my neighbor – at least, I’d like to think I’m trying to get it most of the time – but loving my enemies? Doesn’t that seem just a little bit excessive?
Many of the leading biblical scholars and theologians of the last century seemed to think so. The scholarly consensus was that what we have here is an impossible ethical ideal, a standard so high that its only practical value could be to demonstrate the shortcomings of all human moral and political systems. While some individuals may attain the status of sainthood, most of us – and certainly our religious and political communities as a whole – will necessarily fall short of this ideal of a love so encompassing as to embrace even our enemies.
Some have even argued that if this ideal were to be taken literally the result would be a kind of moral cowardice, the adoption of a stance of passive acceptance of evil. “Turning the other cheek” may be acceptable when the consequences of doing so affects no one other than myself, but surely it is a act of moral turpitude if the consequences involve grave risks to others. What could it mean to turn the other cheek when priests sexually abuse children? What could it mean to turn the other cheek when husbands beat their wives? What could it mean to turn the other cheek when terrorists murder hundreds or even thousands of innocent bystanders? Surely this is an impossible, even dangerous ideal. Perhaps it is best reserved for the saints in light, not for those of us walking in the darkness of this world.
The arguments of intellectuals not withstanding, can we really dispense with the teaching to love our enemies so easily? I have a nagging suspicion that the Church hasn’t understood very well what Jesus is saying to us in today’s Gospel. The Jesus I meet in the Gospels wasn’t much given to philosophical abstractions, and he certainly wasn’t one to lay impossible moral burdens on people. His ministry was largely one of freeing people from their burdens, healing and forgiving and accepting all who came to him. So what is really going on here?
The difficulty, I think, is that the distance between Jesus’ circumstances and our own is so great that it obscures our understanding. If I’m really honest with myself, I have to confess that my desire to dispense with the need to love my enemies springs mainly from the place of relative affluence that I occupy, from my sense of invulnerability to the social and economic realities that victimize so many in our world. If you were to ask me to name my enemies, being the good middle-class liberal that I am, I would be hard pressed to identify any. At least, not any whom I feel are an immediate threat to me. To a great extent, I have the privilege of living in a world without enemies, or so I’d like to believe.
Jesus did not occupy such a place of privilege. The blessings and woes he pronounces are a response to concrete social and economic realties. For Jesus, poverty and privilege were not abstractions. He clearly identifies the poor as those who are hungry; those who weep; those who are excluded, reviled, and defamed. All of these images are ways of describing a readily identifiable group of people. Poverty is not an abstraction, but a soul – grinding struggle for bread, for joy, and for dignity each and every day.
When one is engaged in such a struggle, the identity of one’s enemies isn’t an abstraction either. The enemy is those who exploit the misfortune of the poor for their own gain. Jesus lived in a time when the wealthy were expropriating the land of heavily indebted peasants, a time when widows, orphans and those with debilitating illness could fall below even of a subsistence standard of living through commonplace misfortunes, with no social safety net to catch them. He confronts a situation of injustice and pronounces the victims blessed while declaring woe to the perpetrators. Jesus declares that the kingdom of God is about restoring these poor to the dignity that is rightfully theirs in virtue of their being human, and he identifies himself totally with their plight. The enemy is those who refuse to join Jesus in bringing about justice and dignity for people who are poor.
While we readily recognize the victims in our world, it is often harder for us to identify the enemies, perhaps because our own privilege is secured by their existence. If we bring ourselves to recognize them, then we, too, find ourselves in the predicament of the poor. We, too, must then respond to these enemies of human dignity, of justice, of life itself: And woe to us, if we do not.
It is here, in his instructions on how to respond to enemies, that we find the true spiritual genius of Jesus. The blessings and woes, taken out of context, would seem to place us in an untenable position, an insurmountable conflict between good and evil from which we can flee or else join in the fight. Flight or fight, these are our instinctive responses to our enemies. In his holy, and practical, wisdom, Jesus teaches us a third way – the path of nonviolent resistance.
Jesus provides some very concrete examples of how to love the enemy in his own day. The examples have become well known: turn the other cheek, give away your undergarment as well as your coat, and give to everyone who begs. These have generally been interpreted as a stance of passivity, of nonresistance to evil, becoming “a doormat for Jesus,” but there is a more fruitful way to understand these examples.
Let’s look first at the example of the being stricken on the cheek and offering the other cheek in response. Here, Matthew’s version is more explicit, for he reports the example as a slap on the right cheek. Now, one of the cultural norms at that time was to reserve using the left hand only for unclean tasks. Thus, a slap on the right cheek would necessarily be a backhanded slap using the right hand to put an inferior in his or her place: the kind of slap that a Roman would use on a Jew, a master on a slave, a husband on his wife and children. A direct slap would only be used to challenge an equal. Thus, offering the other cheek is an assertion of one’s humanity and a refusal to be humiliated, forcing the perpetrator either to acknowledge his behavior as inappropriate or strike back in such a way as to implicitly recognize the other’s equality.
Giving away one’s undershirt as well as coat: under Jewish law, a poor person’s coat was taken as a pledge of debt repayment (but returned at night). Remember we are talking about deeply indebted peasants who are losing their land as a result of imperial taxes and exploitative interest rates on debt. The counsel to give one’s undershirt as well as coat, would mean literally going into court naked to shame one’s debtor. It is a symbolic and even humorous way of calling attention to truly scandalous behavior – not public nakedness, but public exploitation of the poor. Similarly, the counsel to practice radical sharing, giving to all who ask and refusing to demand anything in return (much less returned with interest), is a way to alleviate the impoverishment of the peasant class even in the midst of unjust expropriation of their land. It is a call to find ways to support poor people even as one struggles to challenge a social and economic system that creates poverty.
What we have here are not commands, but examples of creative, unrepeatable strategies to resist evil nonviolently, in such a way as to restore human dignity and defend victims. The point in our own day is to find imaginative ways to keep the enemies of human life and human dignity off balance, and to shame them into justice. Loving enemies is not about cultivating a sentimental feeling toward them, much less refusing to hold them accountable for injustice. It is about striving for their conversion, even resorting to coercion when necessary, but never to violent coercion, for that is the only real hope for breaking the cycle of violence that perpetuates and sustains injustice.
Loving enemies is not an impossible ideal that we can easily dismiss. It is a practical moral and spiritual alternative to violence as a means to remedy injustice. It requires us to make creative use of our anger toward enemies in ways that seek their conversion as a means to establish justice. Destroying enemies, however demonstrably evil they may be, simply sows the seeds of future injustice and violence. We need only observe the continuing disintegration of Iraq to realize the truth of this teaching. If we would reap peace with justice, we must instead sow
the seeds of love, a love that refuses to cooperate with humiliation at the hands of enemies while at the same time always respecting their humanity and seeking their good as well as our own.
The way of nonviolent resistance is exemplified by all the great saints of our tradition: from the martyrs of the early church who refused to acknowledge the Emperor as Lord, to St. Francis who preached peace to Christians and Muslims during the Crusades, to Dr. Martin Luther King and Archbishop Oscar Romero in our own day, who challenged the enemies of the poor and condemned the imperial ambitions of the United States in Vietnam and Central America. They are our models, and they are meant to be imitated as well as admired.
As our Presiding Bishop, Katharine, reminded us yesterday in her sermon at the National Cathedral, “This church has said that our larger vision will be framed and shaped in the coming years by the vision of shalom embedded in the Millennium Development Goals – a world where the hungry are fed, the ill are healed, the young educated, women and men treated equally, and where all have access to clean water and adequate sanitation, basic health care, and the promise of development that does not endanger the rest of creation. That vision of abundant life is achievable in our own day, but only with the passionate commitment of each and every one of us. It is God's vision of homecoming for all humanity.”
On this Feast of All Saints, we must ask ourselves the difficult question that has faced the saints of every age: who are the enemies of the poor, and how do we respond to them? One way to respond is to find creative ways as individuals, and more importantly, as a community, to engage the Millennium Development Goals as a framework for addressing global human suffering. To that end, I will convene a meeting after mass on December 10 of all those who are interested in strengthening our parish’s commitment to global and local mission using the MDGs as a template for discernment. This is the work of the saints, and it demands the best of us in terms of creativity and commitment.
Another means of nonviolent response that is immediately available to most of us is the ballot box. The conversion of the enemies of the poor can begin on Tuesday, November 7. Exercising our right to vote, informed by truly Christian values, is one way to live out our baptismal promise to resist evil while striving for justice and peace among all people.
We need all of the saints, all of us, to renew our commitment to the passionate but nonviolent, creative and sometimes satirical but never cynical, work of mending the world. Love your enemies. Be merciful as God is merciful. Change the world. Amen.