Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Moment of Temptation: A Homily

"The scripture says, 'No one who believes in him will be put to shame.' For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'" Amen. (Romans 10:11-13)

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Notice that there is no qualifying clause here: “except for immigrants, or poor people, or rich people, or . . . gay and lesbian people.” St. Paul declares that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek (which was the big cultural divide in St. Paul’s time).

This affirmation comes in the middle of a long and anguished argument in which St. Paul struggles to reconcile his Jewish identity with his Christian commitment. If the Church is the new thing that God is bringing into being, does that mean that God’s promises to Israel are void? Can Jew and Gentile live together in the Church, and what about those Jews (or Gentiles, for that matter) who don’t want to join? Paul goes back and forth through three chapters of his letter to the Romans before concluding that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:29) In the final analysis, the mystery of salvation in Christ embraces Jew and Gentile; including even those who do not call on the name the Lord: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” (Romans 11:32)

In other words, Paul recognizes that we are all sinners in need of grace, none better or worse than the next. Having realized this, Paul lets go of his need to determine who is “in” and who is “out.” He decides to leave that up to God, confident that God’s mercy is greater than our sin, however unsearchable God’s judgments and inscrutable God’s ways may be.

Today, we find ourselves trying to reconcile a cultural divide in the Church equal in intensity to that between Jew and Gentile: the divide between straight and gay. The truth is that we aren’t doing a very good job of it. The Church today is like Paul and the Roman churches, wrestling with whom to include and whom to exclude. Some in our Church are saying that salvation is of straight people, and that unless gay people renounce their identity they (and their straight allies) are cut off from the promises of God. I hear echoes of the first century debates about whether Jews or Gentiles must renounce their respective identities in order to become Christians. The difference is that back then the debate cut both ways; today it cuts one way – toward excluding folks like you and me.

The Good News is that this preoccupation with inclusion and exclusion is part of the old creation that is passing away. In Christ, a new creation is emerging that embraces all in the mystery of God’s self-giving love. Part of the wonder of this new creation is that it doesn’t require us to renounce our identity as Jew or Gentile, black or white, gay or straight. Nothing is lost in the mystery of God’s embrace. What in the old creation served as the basis for division and domination, becomes in the new creation the mosaic of a reconciled humanity spread over the face of a wildly diverse and renewed earth.

In the midst of the Church’s current preoccupation with the inclusion or exclusion of gay and lesbian people, our bishop, Marc, has reminded us of this truth. “The inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the full life of the Church,” writes Marc, “is a matter of justice: as we are all part of the world, and the kindom of God is like a net laid over that same world. All on the earth are connected by this net, whether perceived or not. Actions of justice and injustice reverberate throughout the whole, promoting either integrity, remembering, and shalom, or diabolic isolation. Understood as expressed above, our task in the Church is not actually to include or exclude anyone, but to show forth an intrinsic co-inherence that simply is, created and sustained by God.” (A response to the primates' communique, Shrove Tuesday 2007)

The images of the old creation and the new creation are simply ways of expressing what Bishop Marc describes as illusion and reality. Those who call upon the Episcopal Church to sacrifice the dignity of gay and lesbian people for the sake of the Anglican Communion are under the illusion that our unity can somehow be preserved on the basis of injustice. They are in denial of reality on two counts:

  • The reality of Communion as intrinsic and God given; a gift and not something we can or need to create.
  • The reality that injustice will only serve to obscure our connectedness and thereby harm the whole creation in ways we can not anticipate or understand fully.

In a way, I feel sorry for who labor under such illusions, so preoccupied with inclusion and exclusion. They believe they can bring about the kindom of God through injustice. In fact, our Presiding Bishop, Katharine, has gone so far as to implore us to accept a season of fasting from justice for gay and lesbian people for the sake of the Anglican Communion, when the truth is that the kindom of God is already breaking through the illusions of the old creation for those who have eyes to see.

Thus, we will have a Communion regardless of what the Anglican Primates, or our House of Bishops, or any other human authority decides. It may not be the Anglican Communion, the Communion we have struggled to create, or think we deserve; it can not be a Communion for which we have sacrificed others; we will have the Communion that God is giving us. There is no other, and it is already among us.

On the other hand, we must recognize that injustice and its consequences have their own reality. We are deeply affected by the words and actions of others, precisely because of the reality of Communion that underlies and envelopes and connects all of us. As Dr. King declared in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

And so, we who are gay and lesbian members of the Episcopal Church, and the many straight allies who love and support us, find ourselves at a moment in the life of the Church fraught with temptation. There is, of course, the temptation to enact our legitimate feelings of hurt and anger in ways that play into the very illusions that are the cause of our pain. We can deny the reality of Communion, and respond in kind to injustice with retaliation and reverse scapegoating. Ultimately, this is the way of death.

There is also the temptation of despair, of internalizing our anger and hurt in ways that reveal we have accepted the lies that have been told by those who hold us in contempt. Despair says, “I’m getting what I deserve, and I can’t expect any better.” In the grip of despair, we metaphorically and all too often literally and tragically, give ourselves over to death so that others can not hurt us anymore.

Both of these responses remain in the grip of illusion, of the old creation. Both are bound up with the idea that God desires sacrifice: either of one’s self or of others. It is the very old and very false notion that God is placated by sacrifice. It is the last and most serious of the temptations that Jesus faced in today’s Gospel lesson.

Mark my words: it is not the temptations of the body for food or sex; it is not the temptations of the ego for power and status; it is the temptations of the spirit for righteous sacrifice that are the most dangerous. When the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and invites him to throw himself down, he is trying to ensnare Jesus in the belief that sacrifice precedes mercy. “Throw yourself down,” says the evil one, “and then God will vindicate you.” To which Jesus wisely replies, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Here, Jesus teaches us to reject the idea of sacrifice as a means to secure God’s mercy. The kindom of God is already cast over the earth like a net, connecting us all in God’s compassionate embrace. Engaging in some dramatic act of sacrifice, either of ourselves or of others, is both unnecessary and destructive. In fact, it is an act of faithlessness. We do not need to put God to the test in this way.

The irony here, of course, is that Jesus will eventually offer himself in an act of sacrificial love; not, however, in order to obtain God’s mercy for himself or others. Rather, as one who had already completely accepted and shared God’s love, Jesus chose to offer his life in solidarity with the victims of exclusion and as a sign of resistance to the purveyors of sacrifice. It is mercy which precedes sacrifice, and not the other way around.

My sisters and brothers, the gifts and calling of God to us are irrevocable. We do not need to sacrifice ourselves, alone or with others, for the sake of the Communion because it is already ours as God’s free gift. Our response to calls for sacrifice must be a clear refusal to embrace it as a means to curry divine or human favor. We need not, must not, put God to the test.

That does not mean that we will not be required to make sacrifices in the days ahead. Remember, we are in Lent, and the way of the Cross lies very close at hand. But whatever sacrifices we make must be rooted in a refusal to accept injustice. Anything else is a capitulation to the temptation of the evil one, make no mistake.

Our Presiding Bishop has called for a season of fasting this Lent, fasting from justice for gay and lesbian people. Contrary to her patronizing and heterodox request, the only fast God requires us to accept is that announced by the prophet Isaiah: “Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6)

Our response must be a clear and honest declaration that we can not in good conscience refuse the gifts of gay and lesbian people for any order of ministry, laity, bishops, priests or deacons, and that we must recognize, pastorally and sacramentally, God’s blessing on the holy lives led by lesbian and gay couples. If we must make sacrifices for the sake of justice in this way, even at the cost of our standing in the Anglican Communion, then so be it. Our lives, our vocations, and our relationships are not negotiable.

Communion with God is not ours to give, and neither can it be taken from us. It just is. The only decision we must make is whether or not we will accept the mercy we have been shown by an outrageously loving God. Then – and only then – if we must make sacrifices, let them be offered in solidarity with victims as a sign of that mercy; not for the making of new victims. Let us offer up the sacrifice of heterosexual privilege; not the sacrifice of gay and lesbian people to preserve it. This is our hour to witness to the good news that there is no distinction between gay and straight; “the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’" Amen.


R said...


Simply marvelous. I have posted a link to this on my blog.

Blessings, love, and solidarity.

Rodney said...

Remarkable. I'll be quoting you.
Unless all are truly welcome, no one is truly safe.

Grandmère Mimi said...

John, Richard sent me over here from Fr. Jake's. This is beautiful.

The end of holding the Anglican Communion together does not justify the means of imposing injustice on LGTB brothers and sisters in the Episcopal Church. End of story.

susan s. said...

John, watch out! Mimi might take over the blog ;-) She nearly drives MadPriest even madder.

OT-It was great to see you this weekend, even if part of it was for a funeral.

Susan Hedges