Sunday, July 13, 2008
It was a lovely evening, St. Mary's Church Putney was crammed full, the music was beautiful, and there he stood, all alone in front of the altar.
He bowed his head and said, "Lord, I feel like a boy."
It was a reference to the reading from Jeremiah 1.4-9, read by Susan Russell:
"Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
`Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.'
Then I said, `Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not
know how to speak, for I am only a boy.'
But the Lord God said to me, `Do not say,
`I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to
whom I send you, and you shall speak
whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you
to deliver you, says the Lord.'
Then the Lord put out his hand and
touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
"Now I have put my words in your mouth.'"
As he spoke, the roar of cameras clicking and the strobe of camera flashes filled the sacred space as the still photographers of the secular press took advantage of the 90 seconds granted them to take photos of the bishop of New Hampshire doing this radical thing -- preaching in a church in England.
The people listening were not distracted by the flashes and the noise. They were focused on Gene Robinson. The reaction of many to his simple words, "Lord, I feel like a boy," was immediate and powerful. Some closed their eyes. Some wiped their eyes. Some bowed their heads. Several nodded.
After the photographers were escorted out, he continued."There is a lot of fear around. Have you noticed?" More nods.
He mentioned fears of terrorist attacks, fears of losing one's job, fears about the economy.
"Fear does terrible things" to people, he said.
Just about then, a heckler stood up in the second row and began shouting at the bishop, who stepped back, folded his hands and stood in silence. People near the man tried to silence him, and others began a steady clapping to drown him out. Then the choir started singing a hymn and the congregation joined in. By this time the man was being led -- fairly gently, but firmly -- out of the sanctuary.
Unknowingly, and certainly unintentionally, this man had provided a perfect illustration of the power of fear to cause people to do unloving things to the object of their fears -- to "the other."
After he was gone and the hymn ended, Bp. Robinson stepped forward again, and said, "Pray for that man." He was clearly shaken by the man's hate-filled face and his brutal words, but as he spoke of God's love overcoming fear, he quickly regained his equilibrium, going on with grace and humor to make his points.
"The opposite of love is not hate," he said, "but fear."
He observed that the idea that the Anglican Communion might split over two men loving one another or two women loving each other "must break God's heart."
He reminded the crowd that the words, "Fear not!" bookended Jesus' life -- they were the first words the Angel Gabriel said to Mary just before she agreed to be the God Bearer; it was what the angels said to the shepherds at his birth. After his death, it was the first words out of Jesus' mouth at every one of his post-Resurrection appearances. "Do not be afraid."
He talked about how people were fearful for the church, but reminded us that "the church is not ours to save or lose -- it is God's gift to us." He said it is time to get over our fear for the church and start being good stewards of this gift, so that it can become the church God wants.
"The Anglican Communion is going to be fine," he said, and repeated it.
It might be different, but also, he pointed out, all this discussion might be a sign that the church is up to something new. He said the archbishop of Canterbury had "gotten it exactly right," by having the bishops at Lambeth deal with many of the important issues facing the world before they take up the issue of human sexuality, a plan that puts sexuality in some perspective.
Then he announced he was going to reveal the "homosexual agenda.""It is Jesus. Certainly that is the agenda for this homosexual -- the Jesus I know in my life, who communicates God's unwavering love for me in my life and in my relationships," he said.
"I don't know what causes you to feel less than worthy, not worthy of God's love, but whatever it is, the God of all that is is willing to heal that," he said.
He told people of the revivals he attended while growing up in Kentucky, where, in the heat of the summer, they would listen to hours of preaching and singing and altar calls while fanning themselves with fans provided by the local funeral home. These fans were invariably adorned with a picture of a blond Jesus knocking at a heart-shaped door. When he was older, he did some research on that illustration, and realized that there was a knob on only one side of the door.
"Our God respects us so much that he waits for us to open the door," he said.
He went on to say that the church's discussion of homosexuality is interesting in what it reveals about people's idea of God. When the church treats women and gays like second class people it does not make people outside the church want to know more about God. Indeed, it does just the opposite.
He told a story first told by Archbishop Tutu's daughter about her mother-in-law. The family was upset because of one's son choice of a sweetheart. His parents were not pleased with about the woman and it was causing much uproar in the family. Then one night, her mother-in-law went to bed and prayed about it. The next day she told her family what God had made clear to her -- she had put herself on the wrong committee.
"I'm not on the selection committee," she said. "I'm on the welcome committee. It's my son's job to choose. It's my job to welcome the person he loves."
"We don't get to be on the selection committee," Bp. Robinson said. "God chooses. We get to welcome."
He reminded us that by virtue of our baptisms, we are brothers and sisters in Christ with all other Christians, whether or not we agree with them or like them.
"Peter Akinola is my brother . . . and we will be in heaven together one day," he said. "And we'll get along, because God won't have it any other way. Our job is to love those God loves."
So, he said, "I'm going to Lambeth unafraid," and yes, from time to time he will feel like a boy, and yes, the job will feel overwhelming, "changing hearts one by one until we get to the kingdom. But God wants us to be unafraid.
"God wants you to open up your hearts" to someone "you know who needs you to tell them how God has worked in your life.
"We're changing this church, getting closer to God's idea of church," he said. "Whatever it is that's holding you back from making that witness, get over it."
He reminded the listeners of the story in Third Acts, about the lame man carried each day to the gate of the Temple, into which he was not allowed to go because the Temple leaders said his lameness was caused by sins of his parents or grandparents. But Peter cured him in the name of Jesus, and he got up and not only walked, but ran and leaped and danced his way into the Temple.
Too many of us, Bp.Robinson said, women and gays especially, have been told they can come to the gate but can't come all the way in.
"Listen to me. Whatever it is, God can heal you. Come dance your way inside."
God gave us the Church, he said. "How silly of God to trust us with it," but God has, and we are worthy of the task.
"The God of all that is, is with you. Do not be afraid."
As he ended his sermon, the almost entirely British congregation broke into loud applause. The sermon was followed by a Eucharist celebrated by Giles Fraser, vicar of St. Mary's Putney.
Note: This was first posted at Walking With Integrity here.