On Palm Sunday, in March, 1983, my friend Jim Lewis, then rector of St. Andrew’s in Detroit, invited me to preach. Six or seven people walked out in protest. One of them reported to Bishop Coleman McGehee that I had used the ‘F’ word in my sermon. I never do; I was brought up a proper Southern Baptist sissy. Fortunately a recording of the sermon revealed that I had not, but that made little difference to the complainer: he had heard the word in his head, so distraught was he that a gay man was allowed to preach. The bishop wrote him a letter scolding him for bearing the false witness against me.
I cannot now remember for sure the direction of my sermon, except that I would have focused on the readings assigned for Palm Sunday. I always focus on the assigned readings. Given the splendid parade described in today’s gospel, likely I drew on my own experience of splendid parades. Regardless of the parade, however, the gospel turns very ugly, as will this week. If you are anxious to speed through to Easter, you will be even more anxious by Thursday and Friday. We call this “Holy Week” for a purpose. Take time to merge your Passion with our Lord’s.
Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
This collect will present difficulties to evangelists. They claim to preach good news, that Christ has taken away all of our sin and that we therefore will not have to suffer for those sins, yet in this collect we ask God to “grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering.”
Are we Christians fundamentally masochists? Do we welcome suffering, even ask for it as God’s mercy. Is this kind of spirituality kinky? Should all of our parishes sport a pole in the courtyard atop which ascetics can sit demonstrating their ability to suffer months on end, as they did in the Middle Ages?
I have learned some important things about life through suffering as a gay person, and I am grateful for those insights. I am confident that I would have learned much if I had been unfairly thrown into Sing Sing for 40-50 years as well, but rejoice that I was spared that education.
A professor from the University of Colorado spoke on a panel at the Modern Language Association (MLA) in 1976 about how disturbed he was that so many gay and lesbian writers were coming out and declaring their identity. Their contributions to literature would be reduced, this scholar opined, because many of the insights in their writing were the result of their suffering in secret.
“That’s a great point,” I said in the discussion afterwards, "and I hope you will support a resolution to the MLA to support penalties for heterosexuals so that heterosexual writers and professors can enrich our literature.”
The professor got the last laugh. Later that day he was on the panel that interviewed me for a job at his university.
Isaiah begins by talking about the importance of tongue and ear to him as a teacher. With the tongue he is able “to sustain the weary with a word”; he uses his ear “to listen to those who are taught.” Communication must go both ways, from teacher to the taught, from the taught to the teacher.
Then Isaiah uses these gifts in the context of his being persecuted. Some have pulled out his beard and spat in his face.
From “Teacher Walks at Midnight”
I retraced my steps.
My fairy powers activated more engines.
Adolescent hecklers each season
sprout as predictably as pubes.
"Faggot!" another rehearsed through his beer
to impress his date
parked in the truck in a dark lot.
"Georgia. HJV 925. County Peach."
I memorized as I neared.
"Do you have anything to say to me?"
I said with my huskiest voice.
One boy mumbled,
"Naw, I ain't said nothing."
"Does anyone have anything to say to me?"
"Git outa here.
Nobody's botherin you,
ya nigger-loving, ass-licker faggot!"
the original mustered.
His tremolo freed me this time.
Back home hot pis glued my pants.
-- Louie Crew
In Midnight Lessons. Samisdat, Brattleboro, VT, 1987.
The psalmist continues the litany of sorrows:
I have become a reproach to all my enemies and even to my neighbors,
a dismay to those of my acquaintance; *
when they see me in the street they avoid me.
I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; *
I am as useless as a broken pot.
In the face of such abuse, the psalmist responds
But as for me, I have trusted in you, O LORD. *
I have said, "You are my God.
My times are in your hand;
A white priest told me of jogging daily with Desmond Tutu in the early morning soon after Tutu became Archbishop of Capetown. When he moved into Bishopsgate, in a posh all-white neighborhood, Tutu broke the laws of Apartheid, but the police dared not arrest him. On one morning a lovely young blond woman ran past the Archbishop. Then she stopped, turned around, and spat in Tutu’s face has he passed.
When they reached Bishopsgate, Tutu was crying. The priest spoke to comfort him. “Oh, no!” Tutu said in anguish. I am not crying about a little spit. That’s nothing and cannot hurt me. I am crying for that lovely young woman. What a terrible prison she finds herself in, to need to abuse another human being.”
Let the same Attitude [’mind’] be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
This is the longest Gospel of the year. Don’t miss church, and choose one where you are assured beforehand that you will hear the entire text. I hope that you are lucky enough to have a very dramatic reading, possibly with multiple readers.
Modern English drama grew out of performances of this text in the Middle Ages. It began with a simple musical chant “Quem Quaeritus?” (’Whom do you seek?’) that the angel asked the first visitors to the tomb. From parish to parish the fad grew. Instruments were added. More holy mysteries were celebrated. Animals were added, and when supernumeraries became unruly, the performances were moved to the porch, and thence to the church yards.
In hindsight, the move outside was perhaps a mistake. The ecclesiastical authorities gave up authority to control the farther they plays moved from their domain. Miracle plays followed. The same fads were happening in Europe, and some of the miracle plays continue to this time.
Mel Brookes showed that the crucifixion itself can still challenge the aesthetitic sensibilities of the public.