All Soul's 2003
*Preached at Grace North Church November 2, 2003*
It seems like a lifetime ago that I converted from the Baptist faith to the Episcopal Church. It was a true conversion, and I had the unquenchable zeal of one whose life had just been handed back to him. Tears of gratitude came easy in those days, and I would often go to church during the week for daily mass, or just to sit in the silent church to pray. I remember one day, early in my Episcopal career, going to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. I sat alone, listening to the echo in the near-empty concrete cathedral. I was deeply moved as I surveyed the high altar, the frescoes and the stained glass all around me. I felt assaulted by beauty, and held in love. I also felt tremendous pride. This was OUR cathedral-this beautiful place belonged to us-us Episcopalians. There was nothing second-rate about it-it was truly beautiful and its magnificence sang to me of God.
What is more is that when I became an Episcopalian, I was able to claim the whole of Christian history as my own. Baptist history doesn't recognize anything beyond two hundred years ago, but in becoming an Anglican, the whole of the catholic history was my own possession, and I cherished it with ferocity.
But as anyone who has ever been in love will tell you, after a while the endorphins wear off, puppy love is reduced to a whimper, and real life sets in. It is at this point, once you have withdrawn all your fantasies and projections, that you look over at your partner and you either say to yourself, "Hey, I didn't do so bad," or "My god, what have I gotten myself into?"
My relationship with Anglicanism in particular, and Catholicism in general, has been rather of the latter variety. Once I realized that there were people in the Episcopal Church who were just as self-centered, and sometimes just as nasty as people in the Baptist church could be, I'm afraid I sank into a bit of a depression. And once I began studying Christian history in earnest, the bottom really fell out. Christianity through the ages is filled with horrible people who perpetrated abominable acts on the innocent. Spiritual abuse doesn't even begin to scratch the surface. Our history is replete with court intrigue, fear-driven murder, coercion of every kind, not to mention genocide. And that's just the past.
When I meet someone who identifies themselves as a Christian today, I cringe, and I instantly have all of these projections about what they believe and what they would think of me if they knew what I REALLY thought about religiously. In fact, by and large, I have to admit that I can't stand Christians-present company excepted, of course, if you still identify yourselves as such. Christians have given themselves a terrible name in our culture. And there's no use making excuses about the liberal media or smear tactics-Christians have done it to themselves by trying to out-anathamatize each other at every opportunity.
I mean, from the televangelist scandals to the murder of abortion doctors, from the Southern Baptist pronouncement that the Walt Disney Company is the devil's handmaiden to their voted on-and-passed resolution that wives MUST submit to their husbands in the bedroom, Christians are shooting themselves in the foot right and left. That's the evangelicals for you, but Catholics have fared no better: the Pope declares that it is infallible teaching that women may never be priests, and in the next breath declares that all other religions are spiritual dead-ends, including other Christian faiths.
Such spiritual arrogance is not the way of Jesus, it alienates good, thinking people of almost every religious persuasion, and sets up Christians of every stripe to be thought of as baffoons in the popular imagination. The psychological violence that Christians inflict on their own with their unrealistic, and indeed, unattainable codes of alleged holiness is a tragedy of grand perportions, and the mud they are dragging Jesus through by insisting that they are acting in his name is shameful. The age of religious violence has not passed, my friends, there is just as much evil being done in the name of Christ today as there ever was.
So, why on earth would I want to be associated with such a henous group? Why would any of you? Today we celebrate the Feast of All Souls, where we celebrate our mystical connection with the great company of saints who have gone before us. But why would I want to call mySELF a Christian, or see myself as part of a company of such saints, or should I say such a company of sinners?
I had a dream last week that affected me profoundly, and I'd like to share it with you. In my dream, I was preaching, just as I am now. All of the sudden, in the middle of the sermon, a man jumped up from his pew and pointed his finger at me, shouting, "You're a liar! Hypocrite! You're all hypocrites!" I was taken aback at first, but then the congregation sprang into action, and what they did surprised both me and the man.
They approached the man from behind, and slipped a clerical collar onto his neck. Then another parishioner helped him into an alb, the white robe we wear for service. And then they led him to the front of the church, to the pulpit. I laughed, and grinning broadly, I announced to the man, "Yes! We are liars. We are ALL liars! We are all hypocrites! And if you are a liar and a hypocrite, too, we welcome you with open arms. Now that you are properly attired, please preach to us!"
The parishioners led him up into the pulpit as I stepped aside, but once he was there, the man was speechless. He just stood there staring out at the congregation, struggling to hold back his tears.
I have thought a lot about this dream, and on one level, its meaning is obvious to me. Just like that man, I am outraged at the abuses and offenses of the Christian Church, both in history and in the present. On the other hand, it is precisely because the church is so full of imperfect people, royal screw-ups, and sinners that I feel at home here, because I am imperfect, I am a royal screw-up, and I am a sinner. Yes, we are all liars and hypocrites.
I think that most of us who sit in the pews feel like frauds at one time or another, as if we are pretending to be something we are not. But this is because of the mistaken image put forward by some Christians that we are a holy and righteous people. Phooey. Let all those holy people go and start their own mutual back-slapping club-because the church is not it. The church is not a home for holy Joes-far from it. As Jesus himself said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." The church is and always has been a place for folks just like us, imperfect, usually well-meaning, but often unsuccessful in our attempts to live up to our own ideals.
Thinking about the dream some more, I realized that when the man was held in love by us, he no longer needed to protest. Perhaps my outrage at the church is not only tied to the fact that so many Christians are pretending to be holy, but that _I_ was pretending to be holy. When I get on a rant against the church, I can feel pretty morally superior, but am I really?
In her amazing novel, THE SPARROW, Mary Doria Russell challenges our notions of moral superiority in regards to Christopher Columbus. It is all the rage today to criticize his motives, his actions, and his religion. So in her book Russell imagines the events surrounding the first Jesuit mission to another planet: what if enlightened, self-aware, modern people went to make first contact with another species? With all of our good intentions, just how badly would we screw it up? In that book, we are forced to confront what C.S. Lewis calls our "chronological snobbery," for in truth, if I were in Christopher Columbus' shoes, if I had grown up in his world, lived in his paradigm--as a man of good faith and pure intentions, would I have done any better?
I have to ask myself that when I consider any figure in Christian history. Were these people who perpetrated all these horrid evils really that much different than we? Yes, in that the environment they grew up in was vastly different than the scientific worldview we now inhabit. But was the moral terrain any different? As I look around the world, I still see the same sorts of evils perpetrated by people of purported faith, and I have to shake my head and can come to only one conclusion: We really suck at this being holy thing.
And yet, it is in this very mix of good and evil that we find the mystery of being human. Jung taught us that if we do not make peace with our shadows, they will leap out in inappropriate ways. "Holiness" is a word full of baggage that needs to be jettisoned. Holiness is not about purity. Just listen to the word: Holiness. Holiness is not about what we shut out, but about what we let in, what we embrace. Holiness is not about purity, but about the willingness to get dirty. Holiness is about being whole, about embracing all of our parts, including the uncomfortable ones, the shady bits, the parts of ourselves that we hate, and that we just wish would go away. But we cannot divorce ourselves from our shadows. And Christian communities that refuse to own their shadows perpetuate the same sorts of violence or project it onto other communities.
In myself, I have tried to make some peace with my shadow. I like to take out the leash and take my shadow for a brisk walk on occasion. I don't think of myself as a righteous person, but as a bit of a rogue, a person of tangled motives who nonetheless strives to do the right thing MOST of the time. And in so doing I have tried to embrace this wholeness, this peculiar kind of holiness, that does not demand that I be something I am not, or that I divorce myself from an essential part of me.
I have a much easier time thinking of myself as connected to the communion of sinners than the communion of saints. It seems more honest, somehow. Plus, if I'm not ignoring the considerable shadow of these people, then perhaps I can learn from their mistakes, hopefully I will not repeat them.
So this morning I invite you to once again feel your connection with the great cloud of witnesses we call the communion of saints, but today let us not ignore our simultaneous disdain for them, or for the Christian church in general. For just like us, they are liars and hypocrites. We all fall far short of the ideals we espouse. Let us take comfort in the fact that there is a great communion of sinners who have gone before us, who, more often than not, inspire us not to do as they did, but to strive to get it right this time.
Let us work to embrace ourselves as whole people, warts and all, and let us strive to embrace one another in the same way. And if we can also embrace those who have gone before us on this Christian path, with all their considerable shadows, our tradition teaches us that we will be held by them in love, that they will pray and intercede for us continually, that we will be, in some mystical way, united with them across the worlds. And perhaps if we can really feel ourselves held in love, we will not need to protest quite so much. Let us pray
Jesus, truly you came not to minister to the righteous, for
those who are well have no need for a physician. But, Lord, we
are not well. We are good people who sometimes do terrible things,
often for the best of intentions, and in this mysterious coincidence
of opposites we are united to all those who have walked this path
before us. Hold us in love, Jesus, as you did in your time on
earth. For you did not eat with the righteous, but instead shared
your table with prostitutes, traitors, thieves, liars and hypocrites.
In other words, normal people just like us. Please be our guest
at the communion table today, and dine once again with screw-ups
and sinners. Love even those parts of us we hate, so that we may
come to love ourselves through and through, to embrace our own
wholeness, and indeed, our holiness. Amen.