Thursday, June 29, 2006

Sermon Talkback

I love it when parishioners are willing to engage me about my preaching. Below is an exchange I had with one such parishioner regarding a recent sermon.

Dear John,

I've been thinking a lot about your sermon on Sunday morning, and I just reread it to make sure I understood your message. I agree that we can't give in to the temptation of responding with violence or of giving up, and I agree that the best way to usher in the new era--a time when LGBT Christians will claim full baptismal rights and responsibilities--is to continue to live holy lives and to let others see the gospel-oriented lives we're living. My quarrel is with your choice of the words, "Holy Indifference." Both Lou and I cringed when you said those words. They immediately conjured in my mind the opposite of what you were trying to express (despite your argument to reposition the word "indifference"). The word seems defeatist and passive, and it fell flat to my activist ears. I know you were trying to encourage us that in time God will reveal that LGBT Christians deserve inclusion as full members of the body of Christ and we that should have confidence in that ultimate result, but your use of the word "indifference" obscured that message and did little to embolden me to persevere.

Talking to Lou about it afterwards, I suggested that you chose the word "indifference" because you were trying to talk yourself into feeling some sense of peace after what happened. Knowing how hurt and angry you have felt, and I wondered if you needed to enter into a space of "indifference" before emerging to begin to pick up the pieces and to articulate a response. I was disappointed in your use of the word because the rest of your sermon--the emotional force, the rhythm of your words and the basic message (be calm, have confidence, don't back down)--was so strong. The words seemed to contrast with your basic message. I wanted more of a rallying cry on Sunday, and I felt like I came away with much less.

You know it's rare for me to offer much criticism of your preaching, but I just wanted to share my reaction to what you said. I hope you'll appreciate hearing my views.

Hang in there, John. We have a good thing going for us at St. John's and in the Diocese of California, and soon enough the love we exhibit for all will overcome the fear of others in the U.S. and around the world.


Dear Neil,

Thank you so much for your feedback. Is does my heart good to know that my sermons illicit such thoughtful responses. It is also a helpful reminder to me of the difference between intention and effect.

My understanding of "holy indifference" is drawn from an essay by James Alison entitled "The Importance of Being Indifferent" in his book, On Being Liked. His argument there is rather long and complex, based on a breathtakingly imaginative interpretation of scripture, and more than I can summarize in an email. I'm not sure if I'm smart enough to summarize it at all. Read it for yourself.

BUT, what I can say is that my intention was to define "holy indifference" as an inner disposition of freedom to act out of our hope in God, and not out of our disappointment or resentment. Let me quote from Alison at some length (I wish I had quoted it on Sunday, but I wrote the sermon on a plane coming home from Columbus - longhand on actual paper - I felt like a caveman):

"Resentment is a pattern of desire such that someone is much more occupied with the obstacle to their project than with the project itself. The sign of grace is when someone finds that their desire has been reformed, so that what had seemed like an obstacle becomes relatively indifferent, and they are ever freer to open up a new and creative project. The difference is that between the pattern of desire which creates suicide bombers and that which creates ministers of the Gospel."

There is another essay in Alison's book I think you should read too, called "the strangeness of this passivity . . ." which provides one of the best explanations of prayer that I've ever read. There is strange paradox in that when we discover that God's graceful and loving action toward us is always massively prior to anything we do by way of response, and that our first step is simply to receive that action with gratitude, then we are free to act in ways which we would never have imagined possible and that powerfully re-present God's love. So, yes, in a sense I wish us to embrace a certain kind of passivity first, so that we can become truly useful in God's projects, rather than simply caught up in our own.

And, yes, the sermon I preached was the sermon I needed to hear. Isn't it always?




chris said...

I suspect Alison was borrowing a concept from St. Ignatius Loyola, who taught that the love of God should be such a powerful force in our lives that we become indifferent to anything that proves to be a distraction. This didn't mean that we shouldn't care about the world and our loved ones, but that they get enfolded in our passion for God.
Teresa of Avila put it this way:

Let nothing disturb you,
Nothing frighten you.
All things are passing.
God does not change.
Alone, God is enough.

I don't think Ignatius would have fully agreed with Teresa, since he fully and passionately involved himself with secular and ecclesiastical politics, but understood his involvement as an expression of his obedience to God.
there's a story about Ignatius, that some early Jesuit asked him once if anything could shake his legendary peacefulness. He said perhaps if then-Cardinal Caraffa were to be elected Pope. (Caraffa was a mortal enemy of the new Jesuit order.) Later that election in fact happened. When informed of it, Ignatius grew pale, excused himself and went to the chapel. He return in abot 15 minutes, fully composed and resumed what he had been doing.

Maybe there's a Jesuit in the readership who can explain this better.


Anonymous said...

Regarding the 15 minutes:

St. Ignatius prayed in front of the Blessed Sacrament, Who restored his calm.

The Real Presence strikes again!

janinsanfran said...

Where you said "holy indifference," I heard what I inwardly call "non-attachment" -- that blessed state of being able to do the work, passionately, without needing to live in the illusory certainty that my picture of the outcome must become actual.

I am given this grace sometimes. It is really the only frame of mind in which voluntarily assumed political struggle is other than grubby and painful, though I think sometimes we have to struggle even without feeling of grace.

Doubt if that made much sense.

Christopher said...

I ditto what Jan wrote: I heard non-attachment as well. This has a long history in Christian contemplative circles, at least back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

I often use non-attachment rather than indifference because of the problems associated with that word: noncaring, passionless, etc.