Another day. Another sad story of homophobia...this time at an Episcopal Church south of Atlanta.
On Sunday, August 24th, someone posted a piece of cardboard on the door of St. John's Church with the message: "Homosexual priest in the pulpit in this church are (sic) an abomination. 666." The threat was directed at the priest of the church. His congregation includes a lot of gay people who, not surprisingly, were a little shaken by the note that greeted them that Sunday. According to the story in the Southern Voice, the priest targeted in this incident incorporated the note into his sermon. Instead of condemning the person who would do such a thing, he asked for the congregation to pray for a person deeply trapped in their fears.
How appropriate. It reminds me of what I saw watching Bishop Gene Robinson in England this summer through the magic of the internet, and seeing how my brother-in-Christ stood still and quiet as another fearful person, a young man, waved his motorcycle helmet in the air and yelled at the Bishop that he was a heretic and needed to "Repent!"
And it reminds me of the experience I had a few weeks ago in North Carolina, observing at a close distance the screaming man on the sidewalk and his friends, who blasted people on their way to watch some gay and lesbian-themed movies. Again, the words "abomination" and "repent" were liberally scattered throughout the man's diatribe. As I've told some people, the amazing part of that moment was that I never rose to the same level of anger, fear, or condemnation I was hearing from him. Instead, I stood still and listened. Hearing the fear in his speech and thinking this man really believed he was speaking for God, I felt an odd sense of compassion that someone would be this wigged out over gay people that they'd stand outside and scream at people for four hours. He may have been invoking God's name, but God doesn't dwell in fear.
All of this speaks to what is the most difficult, sometimes elusive, practice that I believe God asks of us. That is to continue to show patience and love for one another. Just in the same way that God, who time and time again in the Old Testament and the New, showed enormous patience and love for us! It was all over the readings from this past Sunday:
From Jeremiah 15:
19 Therefore thus says the LORD: If you turn back, I will take you back,
and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless,
you shall serve as my mouth. It is they who will turn to you,
not you who will turn to them. 20 And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you
to save you and deliver you, says the LORD. 21 I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked,
and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.
From Romans 12:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." 20 No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
And the Gospel from Matthew, in which Jesus gives this instruction:
"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
This last one in the gospel speaks to Bishop Robinson's phrase: "Jesus doesn't want admirers; he wants disciples". He doesn't want us to just say, "Oh, yeah: I love God and I love my neighbor, and I go to church on Sunday just to prove it." The call is for us to follow in his footsteps, knowing that if and when we stumble, God will be there to help us up again, dust us off, and keep us moving forward.
We must be willing to face our enemies, and rather than getting sucked into their vortex of hatred, remain centered in our love of God, and ourselves, and let that love be the words we speak in the face of the person who attacks us. That may sound impossible, or way too much like a lightweight self-help motto...but it is not. I did it in North Carolina. Bishop Robinson did it England. And it's the approach of one priest in an Atlanta suburb. Meet the hatred with love, the fear with confidence, the screaming with silence. And offer a blessing that one day Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of a land where the content of a person's character trumps all the outward and visible signs that keep us separated from one another becomes a reality.