Posted by permission
St. Thomas’ Parish, Washington, DC
March 11, 2007
Readings: Exodus 3:1-15. Psalm 63:1-8. Luke 13:1-9. 1 Cor 10:1-13
Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.
I AM THAT I AM has sent me.
We stand on holy ground. This parish is a holy place.
I am a native of Alabama and was brought up in a devout Baptist family. As young teacher on my first job, I fled the Baptist church and was confirmed at St. Peters in Rome, [Georgia ] on October 29, 1961, and two years later I fled life behind the “Cotton Curtain” and moved to St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, Delaware. For me St. Andrew’s was a splendid closet in which I could hide from myself except in the far reaches of the night. I buried myself in the task that I loved best, teaching. For cabin fever, I would visit Octavio, a close classmate from Baylor, who worked at Walter Reed and lived on 17th Street, a minute’s walk from this parish. On many a visit I came here to St. Thomas’ to pray.
St. Thomas’ is holy ground for me. I rejoice that it is holy ground for you too, in all of your rich diversity
Later I attended Eucharists many times while Integrity met here. Again and again I have reconnected here with many people important to my own spiritual journey. Yall have a splendid history of welcoming gay and lesbian people and everyone else as well.
This neighborhood is holy ground.
I discovered that long before I founded Integrity, or even imagined that the liberation to which God called Moses could prefigure the liberation to which God would call me, you, and so many others before us in this place.
The cry of the lesbians, gays, and transgendered has now come to me; I have also seen how the Church oppresses them. So come, I will send you to the Episcopal Church to bring my people, the Lesbians, gays and transgendered, out of their captivity." But then we said to God, "Who are we that we should go for you?" He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when the people have come out of oppression, you shall worship God in this holy place."
When I first visited St. Thomas’, I was deeply closeted and told no one what I knew about my body chemistry or my heart. I vividly remember on one visit riding out to the National Cathedral on a bus on a very hot day in late spring. Many on the sidewalks had removed their shirts. The traffic was slow, and at one light the bus waited for several minutes. I stared uncontrollably at a man just standing by the bus no more than a foot from my window. I was glad that my friend Octavio was at my back and could not see my eyes. Then Octavio whispered to me, “Isn’t he gorgeous!?”
I turned in complete surprise. “You too?!” I asked. He smiled from ear to ear, his eyes sparkled, and he shook his head up and down.
Do you see the enormity of it! Octavio and I had been close friends for almost 10 years, yet so oppressive was the hetero dictatorship in our minds, that we dared not even share with each other the beautiful innocence of who we were.
That was 45 years ago, but almost any day now the legislature in Nigeria is expected to pass a law that not only will prohibit lesbian and gay marriage, but will also give harsh prison sentences to any gays who associate with each other in public (Look out a bus and whisper ’Isn’t he gorgeous!’ Hold hands? ) and will also punish any heterosexuals who advocate for such gay rights. Last week Time Magazine and The New York Times have joined many newspapers worldwide in condemning this proposal and in pointing a finger at Peter K. Akinola, Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria, who is one of the loudest in promoting the new law and in condemning the Episcopal Church.
The old English word hāl gives us three words in modern English: whole, hale [healthy] and holy. They still are one entity. You cannot be whole if you are not healthy. You cannot be holy if you cannot integrate body and soul, mind and spirit.
We stand on holy ground. We stand in a place safe enough to be whole, to be hale, to be holy.
I hope that you are having a good Lent. It is a penitential season. Throughout Lent we look closely at our sins and strive to repent. Rethink! Rethink! The Kingdom of God is very near you. Rethink! gets closer to the opportunity Lent provides than does Repent! Repent! too easily is received as “Feel guilty!“ God does not want us to grovel: God wants us to use our minds and when necessary, to change them.
I learned an important lesson from the Baptists about the dangers of reviewing my sins: namely, don‘t take someone else‘s word for what your sins are. When I arrived as a freshman at Baylor in 1954, I already knew that it was sinful to cuss, smoke, drink, chew, and beat your wife, but imagine my surprise when Texas Baptists talked about “the sin of mixed bathing”! Do men and women here in Texas actually take a bath together? I wondered in Alabama horror!
Baylor did not allow dances: instead, they renamed them as “functions.” Baylor did not allow fraternities and sororities, but instead, named them “social clubs.”
The huge amount of time we consumed in sustaining these hypocrisies distracted us from looking at the sins of segregation and racism, of which we were all the silent, uncritical beneficiaries. Our missionaries to Africa could not even get their own graduates admitted to Baylor. It was not until after I graduated that a strong black tackle from the University of Texas scared the beJesus out of Baylor and prompted it to integrate.
Our beloved Presiding Bishop has invited us all to spend this Lent in a time of deep reflection about the place of the Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion. I join her in that appeal, with a strong caveat that we not accept uncritically what the Lambeth Conference, the Windsor Report, and the Primates Meetings have told us to be our sins. Octavio and I were not sinning to look out the window of that bus and, like God, to call creation “good.” On the rooftop in Joppa, Peter heard correctly what he had not expected to hear, “Call nothing, [call no one] unclean that I have made.!”
As many of you know, the primates of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion have issued an ultimatum that come September the bishops of the Episcopal Church must assure them that they will no longer consent to the consecration of lesbian or gay bishops and will also not allow the blessing of any more lesbian and gay unions.
Yet, the primates have no juridical authority to make such demands. The provinces of the Communion are autonomous -- interdependent we believe, but autonomous. The word autonomy loses all its meaning in the primates’ demands.
Suppose a president of the US (any one of them, this is not a partisan illustration) were to say to the Senate, “The House of Representatives is too cantankerous for me to bother with. Since both Houses must agree on any legislation before it becomes law, I will deal with them no longer, but only with you; and I expect you to vote down anything of which I disapprove.”
That’s the power play the primates are trying, to have only our bishops decide for the church, and unless enough leaders are vigilant, they just may get away with it. It doesn’t occur to most people in the pews that a bishop might be a sinner, that a bishop might grab power.
I believe that our sin is indeed driving this conflict -- not the sin being talked about, but the one we keep hidden: the sin of colonialism with its attendant racism is visiting itself upon us unto the third and fourth generation. Lesbians and gays are but scapegoats, a convenient issue that presents itself to those whom we have systemically devalued and abused for centuries flex their muscles as for the first time, their bishops have become a majority of the Anglican Communion.
The Anglican Communion is the accidental byproduct of British colonial rule, and in time, a byproduct of American colonialism as well. The New York Historical Society has for several years now mounted a series of exhibits about slavery in New York City. The “stock” at the original New York stock market was human stock: it was the slave market. Much of the wealth and power of this country, of this city, and of the Episcopal Church, derives from the fortunes made, directly and indirectly, by slavery and by the continued economic subjugation of descendents of slaves.
During this Lent, take a tour of neighborhoods you don’t normally visit in this marvelous capitol and ask yourself, “Of what I see here, how much is part of the continuing legacy of slavery?”
The cure for sin is not guilt -- the gift that keeps on giving -- but rethinking and right action.
Ask yourself what you can do to reverse the legacy of slavery? For example, you might organize a diocesan task on Reparations. You might ask John Johnson how you can become more involved in supporting the Millennium Development Goals (the MDGs). If you have not already done so, calculate .7% of your own annual income and send it to Episcopal Relief and Development earmarked for microeconomic projects in the world’s poorest nations, or earmarked for work with bringing black people back to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
My friend Alex Baumgarten, John’s colleague in our Washington Officeis has warned me that even in individual responses to MDGs we may make ourselves feel better and yet still miss out on an opportunity to have a bigger impact in eradicating economic injustice. .7% from every Episcopalian, if given, would be fine, but only a drop in the bucket to the amounts that Episcopalians can hope to raise for MDGs if we pressure our government to make a similar contributions to the economies of the poorest nations, whose resources corporate and individual American interests have too often exploited.
And hear the words of today’s Gospel writ in our own context:
"Do you think that because these poorest nations suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all us Americans? No, I tell you; but unless we rethink, we will all become as endangered as they are. Or those 2,600 who were killed when the World Trade Center fell on them or the 174 who were killed here in Washington--do you think that they were singled out as offenders? No, I tell you; but unless we rethink our foreign policy, unless we can see God’s image in every Muslim, in every dispossessed person, in every “enemy,” and love our enemies as we love ourselves, many more of us will perish just as they did."
Asked whether he believed in infant Baptism, Mark Twain replied: I not only believe in it: I have seen it happen.
When Ernest Clay and I married thirty-three years ago, I wrote my parents and told them about him. They wrote back saying they were happy for us but asked me not to bring him home to visit. “We are old,” they said, “and while most of our friends would remain our friends, we don’t want to put them to the test. We have to live here, and you don’t. But we hope you will continue to come to visit us on your own.”
I showed the letter to Ernest. He smiled when he had finished, but said nothing.
“Well, get your things. We’re driving to see them. It’s only 250 miles and we’ll be there before bed time.”
“Didn’t you read the letter?” he asked.
“They wrote that only because they don’t know you yet. When Dad sees how gentle you are, just like Mother, he will fall in love with you; and when Mother sees….”
“Louie, you’re going to see them, but I am not. I respect their wishes. They have a right to their quiet retirement.
“And you’re going to see them, because if you don’t, something very important in you will die. You are able to love me because they loved you. In that way, I get the best of both worlds: I have a good husband and I don’t have to spend time with my in-laws.”
“No but’s about it,” he said. I sulked, but I went.
After several visits, my father said, “Son, I don’t want to hurt you but I probably will because I don’t know how to talk about it except as a man of my generation, a son of one of the poorest counties in Alabama.
“I don’t understand how flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood could live with a black man as with an equal. At first I thought you might have chosen a black man so that you could feel superior, and I knew that could not be healthy for either of you. Then I feared you might think yourself as inferior because of being gay, and therefore chose a black man. Yet I have listened and listened and I have found no evidence that either has happened.
“And Son, something about you has changed. I loved you before you were ever born. I remember seeing you in the maternity ward with one foot out from under the cover the way I sleep, the way your grandfather slept, the way your great grandfather slept. I remember my joy the first time that I heard in your laugh your mother’s laugh. But son, up until now, something about you has always been incomplete. That’s not so anymore. I am not ready yet to meet Ernest, but you must go home and tell him that I love him, because he has given my son back to me whole.”
We often were amused that neither set of parents could recognize us when we answered the phone. Apparently we have the same answering style. Six years into our marriage, I answered and Dad said, “I’d like to speak to my son, please.”
“Dad,” I am your son, I laughed.
“No, Louie, I want to speak to my other son.”
This one’s for you, I whispered.
He told Ernest, “We are Christians, but we have not behaved like Christians. Will you forgive us, and will you and Louie come spend this weekend with us. We have invited all our friends to come and meet you.”
I believe in the Holy Spirit. I have seen the Holy Spirit happen.
As late as 1979 the General Convention held the view of gay people stated in Lambeth 1.10, in the Windsor Report and in the primates’ recent communique. If the Holy Spirit has needed almost 30 years to change our hearts, cannot we love those in the rest of the Communion enough for the Holy Spirit to work on their hearts?
I believe in the Holy Spirit. Amen
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