Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Seeing with Forgiving Hearts

(A Sermon preached at All Saints' Episcopal Littleton, NH on June 13th, 2010)

There was a story in the New York Times (by Paul Vitello) this week that in the last few months, Muslim groups around the country have encountered unexpectedly intense opposition to their plans for opening mosques.

This particular article focused on an empty convent on Staten Island.

Some opponents have cited traffic and parking concerns. But the objections have focused overwhelmingly on more intangible and volatile issues: fear of terrorism, distrust of Islam, and a linkage of the two in opponents’ minds.

A meeting was organized by the local civic association to ease tensions. It didn’t work.

“Wouldn’t you agree that every terrorist, past and present, has come out of a mosque?” asked one woman.

“No,” began Ayman Hammous, president of the Staten Island branch of the group, the Muslim American Society — though the rest of his answer was drowned out by catcalls and boos from among the 400 people who packed the gymnasium of a community center.

That was how the night went: accusation after accusation, angry passionate words, grand generalizations and assumptions, and attempts at reason met with scorn and ridicule.

The president of the civic association made many efforts to keep control during the subsequent three hours: “Excuse me! This is a civic association meeting! Everybody have a little respect!”

The tenor of the inquiry became so fraught that the meeting eventually collapsed in shouting, prompting the police and security guards to ask everyone to leave.

This meeting of angry accusation, selective sight, and desire for justification reflects a number of observable moments from a wide range of areas, including the Anglican Communion, local Littleton politics, and believe it or not, all of the readings for this week.

The Archbishop of Canterbury announced last week that as punishment for the recent consecration of Mary Glasspool, a partnered lesbian, as the suffragan bishop of Los Angeles, that representatives of the Episcopal Church were to be expelled from all international Anglican committees that address issues of Anglican theology and relations with other denominations.

There has been a lot of commentary about this, including a wonderful pastoral letter from our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jeffers Schori. Other reactions were a bit cynical, or even humorous. One rector’s letter that remarked: “You know the Anglican Communion is in trouble when getting kicked off a committee is the sanction for disobedience."

But perhaps the commentary that gave me most reason to pause was Jim Naughton writing on Episcopal Café:

“About halfway through, (yet again), weighing some of the issues, I had a sudden realization: reflecting on Rowan Williams’ letter wasn’t a worthwhile use of my time; writing it was not a worthwhile use of his. The issues at stake have become so trivial—We are not debating right and wrong, we are debating whether there should be trifling penalties for giving offense to other members of the Communion.—that to engage them at all compromises our moral standing and diminishes our ability to speak credibly on issues of real importance.”

What a sad place to arrive to…

I’m afraid local politics have not been much better. Anyone who’s been at a local Selectman’s meeting, or simply read the recaps in the paper, knows that the relationships between not only the local leaders, but many of the people who regularly attend the meetings, are really frayed. People’s ability to really see one another has been drastically compromised.

This week’s lectionary readings reflect this sense of disarray as well: We have a leader so obsessed with a particular garden, that he arranges false testimony to get the owner killed in order to acquire the land. (1 Kings 21:1-21a) We have, in the letter of Galatians (2:15-21), Paul’s frustration at Peter’s wavering over the agreement to allow Jews and non-Jews to be equal partners in the early Church. Peter felt threatened in that some of the newer Christian communities were becoming different from the more traditional, Jewish ones. Paul maintained that the gospel could survive, even flourish in different communities, but it could not survive the displacement of divine grace by binding customs and moral codes. (Wendy Farley in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p.134-136)

And finally, we have a gospel where the host of the party, Simon, looking down on a nameless woman that brings in the alabaster jar of ointment. He’s so obsessed with her lack of worthiness that he ends up shaming himself publicly in front of Jesus. (Luke 7:36-8:3)

It’s hard to even find places in these events where things could get better.

Returning to the issue over the Mosque, there was one moment where things might have changed:

20 minutes before the meeting deteriorated, a man named Bill Finnegan came to the microphone. The meeting came to a moment of hushed silence. Mr. Finnegan said he was a Marine lance corporal, home from Afghanistan, where he had worked as a mediator with warring tribes.

After the sustained standing ovation that followed his introduction, he turned to the Muslims on the panel: “My question to you is, will you work to form a cohesive bond with the people of this community?” The men said yes.

Then he turned to the crowd. “And will you work to form a cohesive bond with these people — your new neighbors?”

The crowd erupted in boos. “No!” someone shouted.

Can you imagine how that moment must have felt: he’s just come back from halfway around the world, trying to get people to listen with open hearts to one another, and can’t reach that objective even among his neighbors and friends. Must have broken his heart...

We’re so focused on where we think others need to grow that we miss the places where light doesn’t shine in our own lives.

It seems like we are at a convergence of world, local, and Biblical points about the way we see one another, and about the way we often refuse to see ourselves.

UCC pastor Kate Huey writes that the most important sentence in this Gospel text may be the simple question, "Simon, do you see this woman?":

“Simon, do you see this woman?" Simon, can you look past your pre-conceptions, your assumptions, your cherished beliefs, your social status, your religious prejudices…and see a child of God? Simon, can you accept the lesson she is teaching you at this very moment? Simon, can you turn off that harsh voice playing in your head, and open your heart to the tenderness of this moment? Simon, can you let grace change your life?

This is just as true for us today. When we look at those we consider "sinners" – those who disagree with us, who read the Bible differently than we do, who disagree with us politically or religiously, who are considered, for one reason or another, our "enemy," can we look past our preconceptions, our assumptions, our cherished beliefs, and see a child of God? Can we let grace change our lives, too?

Perhaps that is the key. These people that we read about who open their hearts to Jesus, who see him in truth and accept him: do we doubt that their lives are transformed? The bent-over woman stands up straight, the woman with a hemorrhage is cured, and those who are blind, see.

Those who are blind, see.

Jesus asks us all to open our eyes and see everything with a forgiving heart. Doing so is discovering God’s loving gift of freedom: not only for them, but for us. Jan Holton writes:

A heart that is bound by sin and shame withers and dies, but the love of a forgiving God lifts (the heart) to heights beyond our greatest dreams, and causes it to sing in gratitude.
(Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p.144)


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