Genesis 2:4b-8, 18-23 Song of Solomon 2:8-13 Galatians 3:23-29 Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Rhythms of Grace
“I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” — Anne Lamott
If our forebears could join us today, I can only imagine the range of their reactions to Pride Sunday. “What?! a Sunday to celebrate one of the Seven Deadly Sins? What has the world come to? I suppose you have a Greed and Gluttony Sunday as well?” And we would get to explain that ‘Pride’ in this context is not about one of the cardinal sins, but about undoing the millennia of shaming that human societies and the church have heaped on children of God whose sexual orientation doesn’t coincide with the majority. In a way, it’s analogous to the phenomenon in the Harry Potter books, where one undoes a spell by saying it backwards. This is the kind of pride that cancels out layers and layers of shame. A year or two ago, when an Anglican priest in Uganda decided to push for legislation that would make homosexuality a capital crime, proclaiming that it was against nature, I conspired with an American colleague in New Jersey to inform him just how mistaken he was. I purchased a copy of Biological Exhuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, a 768-page survey of how homosexual behaviour occurs everywhere in the animal kingdom, from penguins and bottlenose dolphins to vampire bats and giraffes–and Elizabeth, my colleague, mailed it to him. (Not surprisingly, we didn’t receive a thank-you note.)
It is painful to speculate how many people have died simply for being a member of a sexual minority, by ignorance and misguided legislation, or by bullying or shaming that resulted in suicide; and how many others lived in terror that someone would find out. I recently watched a four-episode PBS series on the Medicis, the Florentine family that spanned two of the most remarkably creative centuries in human history. They were the patrons of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Galileo, and the city of Florence was the epicenter of the Italian Renaissance. Yet tens of thousands of people were put to death in that city alone for so-called crimes against nature.
The Medici family had built its empire in part by being the bankers to the pope, and would become a parable of absolute power corrupting absolutely. Two Medicis would eventually become popes, one of whom plundered the Vatican treasury, and then hatched a plan to refill its coffers by selling “indulgences” that would supposedly reduce a person’s time in purgatory before entering heaven. One could even buy indulgences for loved ones who had predeceased you. It was a huge success. But this commercialization of grace was such an affront to an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther, that he fired back with the best ammunition he had: a passage of scripture from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome that states unequivocally that we are saved by faith, not by works. That prophetic moment grew into a great reforming movement at a time when the church was the most powerful political force in the world. And while the Roman hierarchy could excommunicate Luther for holding a mirror to their corruption, and silence Galileo for having the audacity to claim that the earth was not the centre of the universe, both would ultimately by vindicated, although it would take hundreds of years before Rome would apologize for its treatment of Galileo.
And so, a book from which we read every week has been used both to justify the condemnation of Jews, women, scientists, and gays, among others, as well as to provide the antidote for misguided prejudice and abuse. There are probably some of us in this room who found ourselves uncomfortable during the reading of the passage from Genesis, because the the creation of Adam and Eve has been used as biblical warrant for God’s preference for heterosexuality as the only acceptable combination for interpersonal partnering. We have all seen the t-shirt: “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” And if all you do is focus on the punchline of this passage, it’s understandable how one can be persuaded by the rhetoric. But back up for a minute, and let’s take a closer reading.
First of all, the book of Genesis has not one, but TWO creation stories; the first that unfolds one day at a time, with God looking back on the six days of creation and finding it “very good;” and a second narrative that is much more focussed on relationship. That’s the one we read from today:
It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them…. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.
Sure, this is the language of biblical mythology–there were no CBC reporters on the scene and written language was still far in the future, so what we have was passed down for generations by oral tradition. Nevertheless, the narrative our ancestors told clearly indicates that God allowed the man to decide what a suitable companion would be; the Creator finally gets it right with Eve, and Adam approves. One person can read this passage and conclude that it therefore affirms that only a man and a woman can be suitable mates, while another can read the same passage and see how God partnered with the first man to create a companion that depended upon Adam’s approval. And that opens up the story in a completely different way, a way that steadily gains credence as more and more people realize that sexual orientation is a gift, rather than a choice, and more than that, a gift wrapped in sufficient mystery that no one can speak authoritatively for someone else. Yet the Church for much of its history decided that it could do what God was not willing to do by dictating who can be one’s partner in life.
If St Paul were writing the Letter to the Galatians today, this morning’s Epistle might have been updated to read:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, or gay or straight; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are … heirs according to the promise.
God’s self-disclosure, or revelation, has been progressive from the beginning. It’s obvious from even a cursory reading of the Bible. Jesus promises his disciples that God had yet more truth to reveal, truth they weren’t ready to hear at that time. But there will always be those who are threatened by truth newly revealed beyond the biblical canon, whether the messenger is a Galileo, or a Martin Luther, or a Martin Luther King. We don’t need to look very far to see the corrosive effects of power in the world in which we live.
My New Testament professor, Bill Countryman, wrote a popular book entitled, Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny? in which he addresses the chequered history of biblical interpretation. The Bible can be used to bludgeon, marginalize, silence, or even kill indiscriminately. But the Bible can also speak authoritatively to any age, even our own post-Christian age. Liberation theology was animated by the story of the Exodus and the deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Paul’s letter to the Romans helped to kick-start the Protestant Reformation, and Karl Barth’s incendiary commentary on the same epistle in 1919 was described as falling “like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians.” His teachers had signed a manifesto supporting Germany’s war aims in World War One, and he parted ways with his mentors and the liberal school they represented. Eugene Peterson, who is responsible for The Message, the contemporary translation of the Bible we used for today’s Gospel, has helped many to see things in the scriptures for the first time.
For example, in the passage from Matthew we just read, Jesus asks the people who have come to hear him:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Those rhythms of grace continue to punctuate our lives. We know what it is to struggle for justice, to bang on the judge’s door in the middle of the night, to march down a street challenging the power structures of our own day, to write letters on behalf of prisoners half a world away, to telephone or email a politician to demand that voiceless ones are heard; to confront oppressive structures in the church that resist the Holy Spirit’s shaping us into the community Christ promised we could become.
As the Bruce Springsteen song reminds us, “Everybody has a hungry heart”—a heart that longs to be touched by God’s grace. We are gathered here today, possibly because we have ourselves experienced the rhythms of grace or because we are looking for grace to break into the world we carry around with us every day. It may be that the delivery vehicle of grace will be a word or a song. Or perhaps it will be a hug or a story or an action that begins with forming a circle around the bread and the wine and remembering Jesus’ words of promise that we have ALL been made worthy to stand before our Creator, forgiven and whole.
Let me conclude with the same Anne Lamott quote with which I began:
“I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”