When I was growing up, we had something of a family ritual in my house around bedtime. Well, we actually had two rituals. First, my brother Andy and I would do everything we could to avoid going to bed. Asking to watch another 10 minutes of TV, usually. Or taking a really long time in the bath. Or suddenly engaging in some very exciting play with our Star Wars figures. And invariably, my parents would tell us to “stop stalling” and get to bed. Somehow, I suspect that this ritual wasn’t unique to the Cadwells in Minnesota.
But after we gave in and actually got ready for bed, it was prayer time. As I recall we didn’t say prayers absolutely every night, but often enough. Sometimes my parents came into our rooms, and sometimes we went and hopped into their bed, so we could all be together. We didn’t really say prayers for people or things. Instead, we tended to sing songs from Sunday school. My mom was a Sunday school teacher, so she knew all the songs, and I think my dad did, too. We usually sang two or three songs together, and then said the Lord’s prayer and ended with “Now I lay me down to sleep.” I know it sounds really cheesy, like we were right out of the von Trapp family in the Sound of Music, but it’s true!
My favorite song was about Zacchaeus, the character in this morning’s gospel. Maybe you know it, too. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in the sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see. And as the savior passed that way he looked up in the tree. And he said, ‘Zacchaeus, you come down. For I’m going to your house today. For I’m going to your house today’.” Usually, when we sang it both in Sunday school and at home there were hand actions, too.
I can’t say that when we sang this song I knew a whole lot about wee little Zacchaeus or why Jesus went to his house. We just knew that whoever he was, he was really short, he knew how to climb trees, and he also knew about Jesus. Somehow Jesus knew about him, too. Well, this morning’s gospel fills in the blanks. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. In fact, he was the chief tax collector, which in the first century was an even more unpopular job than working for the IRS would be today. Because you see, in those days tax collectors went around and collected whatever tax the Roman Empire required, but then they would take some additional extra finds for themselves. And sometimes they took a lot extra funds for themselves. But there was no one to stop them, as they were part of their society’s power structure. They were an integral part of the system that the Roman Empire used to try and keep people down.
That’s why we hear such frequent negative references to tax collectors in the gospels. They were the epitome of the corrupt bad guys. The worst of the worst. And yet it seems that Jesus actually spent a lot of time with them. He forgave them. He even invited them into his closest circle of friends. In fact, the disciple Matthew, after whom I am named, was a tax collector. And so was Zacchaeus, the wee little man. It obviously wasn’t the best move in terms of Jesus’ public relations, especially among the religious people who thought that hanging around with the wrong kind of people would somehow rub off on them, but it’s what Jesus did. Over and over again.
Why did he do that? Why did he associate with such unpopular, even hated people? Why hang out with tax collectors, who cheated other hard-working people out of their money?
Well, first we know that Jesus was almost never too concerned about popularity or what other people thought. He absolutely didn’t care about that. In fact, I think Jesus associated with, hung out with, these people in part because they were so hated. I know that sounds weird. But you know, the tax collectors (as well as the prostitutes and whoever else that was unpopular), they were shunned by their society. Nobody liked them or treated them with any sort of respect, except maybe out of fear. And so they dug their heels in, and since they were treated so badly in the first place, they gouged people in collecting taxes. In a way, the tax collectors like Zacchaeus made others pay for being so mean. Which only made people hate them more.
But Jesus wouldn’t be caught up in that vicious cycle. Jesus broke the cycle by telling Zacchaeus that he will accept him, and even befriend him, just as he is. It didn’t matter to Jesus how rotten a life Zacchaeus’ had led. It didn’t matter to Jesus that Zacchaeus had no other friends. It didn’t matter to Jesus what he had done. Jesus just wanted to be with him, he wanted to spend time with him, to accept him, for no other reason than, well, just because.
Now of course as a result Zacchaeus says that he will change his ways. He promises to give half of what he has to the poor and he promises to repay four-fold anything he has taken dishonestly. But that doesn’t come first. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say to Zacchaeus, “if you fix your life I’ll be your friend” or “if you shape up, I’ll love you.” No. With Jesus, the friendship, the love, and the acceptance all come first. Just because. Just because that’s what Jesus does.
Today, October 31, is of course Halloween. But it is also the 493rd anniversary of the day when a German monk and priest, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses (basically complaints or arguments) on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, lighting the fire that became the Protestant Reformation. He did it out of frustration with the prevailing mood in the church of his day, which seemed to require that people earn (or even buy) their salvation. In those days, before you could be forgiven of your sins, you had to do all kinds of special things. First, you had to confess your sins to a priest. Then, you had to maybe say Hail Marys or undertake other spiritual exercises. People were even encouraged to buy a piece of paper from a priest that would assure that you or your relatives would be freed from purgatory. The worst offender in that regard was a priest named Johannes Tetzel, who famously said: “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Hearing this, Luther was appalled, even as he struggled personally with feeling that he had not done enough to merit God’s forgiveness and love.
So, he decided to engage in a scholarly debate with the church hierarchy—that’s what he 95 arguments were for—to begin a debate with the church leaders. Luther was actually a very conservative man. He didn’t want to start his own church. He really just wanted to fix the abuses he saw. But the pope and the bishops weren’t too keen on an upstart monk from a backwater German town telling them how to run their church (plus they needed the money from the sale of the indulgences to pay for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome) so eventually, the only option for them was to excommunicate Luther when he refused to back down. Only, what happened was that others heard about him. They read what he wrote. And many, many people thought Luther was right—even some kings and princes thought he was right. So, they left the Catholic Church (which to that point really was the only church) and they started their own.
At the time, they didn’t call it Lutheran (or even Protestant). It was called Evangelical—meaning simply gospel-based. And like wild-fire, it spread throughout Germany and then into the Netherlands and Switzerland and Scandinavia and, eventually, to England, where it took on a unique character, blending the important insights of the Reformation teaching, with a more Catholic sensibility in terms of worship and church life. We, in the Episcopal Church, are the inheritors of that unique English way of being church.
But wherever it went—whether England or Germany or Scandinavia--it was always based on the idea that you can’t earn your salvation. There’s nothing you can do to make God love you. It doesn’t matter how good, or bad, your life is, God loves you anyway. That’s what we mean by “grace.” It’s unearned, unmerited love and acceptance. The phrase you often hear with regard to the Reformation is “justification by grace through faith.” You are “justified”—meaning, God loves you as if you haven’t sinned, even though you know you have, even though God knows you have. And all you have to do is accept it, have faith that he does so. Of course from a legal perspective it’s totally wrong. It’s unfair and unjust. But, it’s what God does. Just because.
What Luther discovered in reading the Bible—especially in the letters of St. Paul—was that God is not really like a judge who keeps track of each and every wrong. That’s what many of the medieval Christians believed, and to a certain degree it’s what the church wanted them to believe. Rather, Luther discovered that God is really like a parent, a Father, who loves us in spite of what we do, just as our own parents do. Our job, like Zacchaeus’ in today’s gospel passage, is welcome God into hearts, just as he welcomes Jesus into his home. That’s the faith part of justification by faith. And when we do, we are set freed from the chains of our sin. We realize that we are loved, we accepted just as we are with all of our faults, and in response, we are able to break the cycle of pain and hurt that we inflict on others.
When you boil it all down, that’s what the Reformation was all about—understanding and appreciating God’s love, shown in Jesus. Accepting God’s love. And then, being transformed by it. So that we are free to love in return. That’s what today’s gospel passage is all about, too. And, when you think about it, it’s what the whole of our Christian faith is all about. Being loved, accepting that love, and then loving in return. It’s pretty simple and it’s pretty wonderful.
I thought I would close this morning with a prayer by an Anglican theologian and bishop named Brooke Foss Westcott. He actually lived in the 19th and 20th centuries, not the Reformation era. But I thought the prayer was a good one in summing up what this morning’s gospel and the Reformation ideals were all about. So, let us pray.
O Lord our God, in whom we live and move and have our being, open our eyes that we may behold your fatherly presence always with us. Draw our hearts to you with the power of your love. Teach us to be anxious about nothing, and when we have done what you have given us to do, help us, O God our Saviour, to leave the issue to your wisdom. Take from us all doubt and mistrust. Lift our hearts to you in heaven, and make us to know that all things are possible for us through your Son our Redeemer. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Thursday, October 21, 2010
The Vicar of Wakefield hasn't been blogging lately, primarily because life in the parish has been very full. However, I recently received a message from a colleague in Toronto which made me think I should post again. He forwarded a year-old statement by the retired Bishop John Shelby Spong regarding the church's seemingly endless and increasingly tedious debate on the place of gay people in its common life.
As usual, Bishop Spong is strident. He is convinced that he is right. He doesn't provide room for debate. That's Bishop Spong's way. And in this case, I think he is right.
I don't read Bishop Spong much these days. I basically stopped reading him about 15 years ago. Although, I have heard him speak a few times since then and about 10 years ago I nervously preached a sermon at the MIT chapel when Bishop Spong was in the congregation. But although I am not attracted to his books today, there was a time when he was very important to me. In fact, I read everything he wrote that I could get my hands on. I was brought up with a very traditional faith, with which I was increasingly uncomfortable. So for me, Bishop Spong presented a fresh and open way of understanding the Bible, God, Jesus, and humanity. He presented it all in a way that made sense. When I look back on his books today I find that Bishop Spong's questions and concerns are no longer my questions or my concerns. But, as I reflect on it, it's probably because I read books like Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Living in Sin, and Born of a Woman that I was able to move beyond those questions of "fact" (how this or that miracle or fantastic story is possible which at one point were so challenging for me) that he spends so much time with, and into my current preference for trying to understand what the church or the Bible is trying to convey to its audience through a particular passage or story.
With regard to the place of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church, Bishop Spong has been a pioneer. There's no question about that. Admittedly, sometimes it seems as if he lead the way in part to draw attention to himself. He definitely seems to like attention. Nevertheless, I am grateful to him. In some part I am Episcopalian and a priest because of him--because of his writings and his challenging the status quo and his doing what he thought was right when others were more hesitant and his refusing to back down--and for that I am very thankful. The bishop's statement on GLBT issues follows. Perhaps others, reading his powerful words, will be likewise transformed by his insight and leadership as they learn who they are, whose they are, and how much God loves them. Bishop Spong is right. It shouldn't be up for debate.
A Manifesto! The Time Has Come!
by Bishop John Shelby Spong
Oct 15, 2009
I have made a decision. I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone. I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. I will no longer discuss with them or listen to them tell me how homosexuality is "an abomination to God," about how homosexuality is a "chosen lifestyle," or about how through prayer and "spiritual counseling" homosexual persons can be "cured." Those arguments are no longer worthy of my time or energy.
I will no longer dignify by listening to the thoughts of those who advocate "reparative therapy," as if homosexual persons are somehow broken and need to be repaired. I will no longer talk to those who believe that the unity of the church can or should be achieved by rejecting the presence of, or at least at the expense of, gay and lesbian people. I will no longer take the time to refute the unlearned and undocumentable claims of certain world religious leaders who call homosexuality "deviant."
I will no longer listen to that pious sentimentality that certain Christian leaders continue to employ, which suggests some version of that strange and overtly dishonest phrase that "we love the sinner but hate the sin." That statement is, I have concluded, nothing more than a self-serving lie designed to cover the fact that these people hate homosexual persons and fear homosexuality itself, but somehow know that hatred is incompatible with the Christ they claim to profess, so they adopt this face-saving and absolutely false statement.
I will no longer temper my understanding of truth in order to pretend that I have even a tiny smidgen of respect for the appalling negativity that continues to emanate from religious circles where the church has for centuries conveniently perfumed its ongoing prejudices against blacks, Jews, women and homosexual persons with what it assumes is "high-sounding, pious rhetoric." The day for that mentality has quite simply come to an end for me.
I will personally neither tolerate it nor listen to it any longer. The world has moved on, leaving these elements of the Christian Church that cannot adjust to new knowledge or a new consciousness lost in a sea of their own irrelevance. They no longer talk to anyone but themselves. I will no longer seek to slow down the witness to inclusiveness by pretending that there is some middle ground between prejudice and oppression. There isn't. Justice postponed is justice denied. That can be a resting place no longer for anyone. An old civil rights song proclaimed that the only choice awaiting those who cannot adjust to a new understanding was to "Roll on over or we'll roll on over you!" Time waits for no one.
I will particularly ignore those members of my own Episcopal Church who seek to break away from this body to form a "new church," claiming that this new and bigoted instrument alone now represents the Anglican Communion. Such a new ecclesiastical body is designed to allow these pathetic human beings, who are so deeply locked into a world that no longer exists, to form a community in which they can continue to hate gay people, distort gay people with their hopeless rhetoric and to be part of a religious fellowship in which they can continue to feel justified in their homophobic prejudices for the rest of their tortured lives. Church unity can never be a virtue that is preserved by allowing injustice, oppression and psychological tyranny to go unchallenged.
In my personal life, I will no longer listen to televised debates conducted by "fair-minded" channels that seek to give "both sides" of this issue "equal time." I am aware that these stations no longer give equal time to the advocates of treating women as if they are the property of men or to the advocates of reinstating either segregation or slavery, despite the fact that when these evil institutions were coming to an end the Bible was still being quoted frequently on each of these subjects. It is time for the media to announce that there are no longer two sides to the issue of full humanity for gay and lesbian people. There is no way that justice for homosexual people can be compromised any longer.
I will no longer act as if the Papal office is to be respected if the present occupant of that office is either not willing or not able to inform and educate himself on public issues on which he dares to speak with embarrassing ineptitude. I will no longer be respectful of the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems to believe that rude behavior, intolerance and even killing prejudice is somehow acceptable, so long as it comes from third-world religious leaders, who more than anything else reveal in themselves the price that colonial oppression has required of the minds and hearts of so many of our world's population. I see no way that ignorance and truth can be placed side by side, nor do I believe that evil is somehow less evil if the Bible is quoted to justify it. I will dismiss as unworthy of any more of my attention the wild, false and uninformed opinions of such would-be religious leaders as Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Albert Mohler, and Robert Duncan. My country and my church have both already spent too much time, energy and money trying to accommodate these backward points of view when they are no longer even tolerable.
I make these statements because it is time to move on. The battle is over. The victory has been won. There is no reasonable doubt as to what the final outcome of this struggle will be. Homosexual people will be accepted as equal, full human beings, who have a legitimate claim on every right that both church and society have to offer any of us. Homosexual marriages will become legal, recognized by the state and pronounced holy by the church. "Don't ask, don't tell" will be dismantled as the policy of our armed forces. We will and we must learn that equality of citizenship is not something that should ever be submitted to a referendum. Equality under and before the law is a solemn promise conveyed to all our citizens in the Constitution itself. Can any of us imagine having a public referendum on whether slavery should continue, whether segregation should be dismantled, whether voting privileges should be offered to women? The time has come for politicians to stop hiding behind unjust laws that they themselves helped to enact, and to abandon that convenient shield of demanding a vote on the rights of full citizenship because they do not understand the difference between a constitutional democracy, which this nation has, and a "mobocracy," which this nation rejected when it adopted its constitution. We do not put the civil rights of a minority to the vote of a plebiscite.
I will also no longer act as if I need a majority vote of some ecclesiastical body in order to bless, ordain, recognize and celebrate the lives and gifts of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church. No one should ever again be forced to submit the privilege of citizenship in this nation or membership in the Christian Church to the will of a majority vote.
The battle in both our culture and our church to rid our souls of this dying prejudice is finished. A new consciousness has arisen. A decision has quite clearly been made. Inequality for gay and lesbian people is no longer a debatable issue in either church or state. Therefore, I will from this moment on refuse to dignify the continued public expression of ignorant prejudice by engaging it. I do not tolerate racism or sexism any longer. From this moment on, I will no longer tolerate our culture's various forms of homophobia. I do not care who it is who articulates these attitudes or who tries to make them sound holy with religious jargon.
I have been part of this debate for years, but things do get settled and this issue is now settled for me. I do not debate any longer with members of the "Flat Earth Society" either. I do not debate with people who think we should treat epilepsy by casting demons out of the epileptic person; I do not waste time engaging those medical opinions that suggest that bleeding the patient might release the infection. I do not converse with people who think that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans as punishment for the sin of being the birthplace of Ellen DeGeneres or that the terrorists hit the United Sates on 9/11 because we tolerated homosexual people, abortions, feminism or the American Civil Liberties Union. I am tired of being embarrassed by so much of my church's participation in causes that are quite unworthy of the Christ I serve or the God whose mystery and wonder I appreciate more each day. Indeed I feel the Christian Church should not only apologize, but do public penance for the way we have treated people of color, women, adherents of other religions and those we designated heretics, as well as gay and lesbian people.
Life moves on. As the poet James Russell Lowell once put it more than a century ago: "New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth." I am ready now to claim the victory. I will from now on assume it and live into it. I am unwilling to argue about it or to discuss it as if there are two equally valid, competing positions any longer. The day for that mentality has simply gone forever.
This is my manifesto and my creed. I proclaim it today. I invite others to join me in this public declaration. I believe that such a public outpouring will help cleanse both the church and this nation of its own distorting past. It will restore integrity and honor to both church and state. It will signal that a new day has dawned and we are ready not just to embrace it, but also to rejoice in it and to celebrate it.