O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.Acts 4:5-12
For several years now Anglicans the world over have been asking The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, ‘By what power or authority do you do affirm lgbt Christians -- bless their committed unions, ordain them as deacons and priests, and even consecrate one of them as a bishop while he is publicly in a same-sex union?’
That’s a contemporary variation on what the religious leaders in Jerusalem asked Peter and John, who had made the “mistake” of healing someone in the name of Jesus. Instead of rejoicing in the man’s recovery, the religious leaders challenged the authority of the healers and demanded an account of their credentials.
Angry religious leaders in Jerusalem did not give a fig about the man healed by Peter and John. Angry Anglicans seem not to have noticed, or cared, about the changed lives of lgbt Christians. Some of the angry Anglicans say that lgbt persons are not even Christians. Some Anglican bishops agree with Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, who asserts that lgbts are “lower than pigs or dogs.” They assume that lgbts live down to their evil stereotypes of us -- as promiscuous and shallow people defined by sexuality, devoid of spiritual commitments, exploiters of the vulnerable, worthy only of condemnation and best put in prisons or mental institutions.
Those views were predominate in the small Alabama town where I grew up (born 1936). The only time I ever heard of any gay person (they called them ’fairies’ and ’queers’ then) was when someone got caught making a pass at another person and was summarily fired and either jailed or run out of town. Radio announcers always mentioned where the offender worked with a sense of horror (a barber, a dentist, a school teacher). People pitied those who had unknowingly hired them or had any dealings with them, as if their contamination would rub off.
When Ernest and I met in 1973, he knew of at least two other gay couples. I had never met any gay couple. When we used the Book of Common Prayer to make our vows to each other before God, we merely changed the pronouns, not the sacred promises. Through our 35+ years together, I have of course met many who began their unions before we began ours, but in those days, especially in rural areas like ours, the last thing they wanted to do was to increase their vulnerability by being public about their relationships. But with most of the evidence of healthy committed relationships hidden from the public, it is not surprising that the distorted stereotypes prevailed then, as they do now in most of the Anglican Communion. “By what authority,” they ask us, “do you bless them, ordain them, or consecrate them?!”
O that General Convention in Anaheim, filled with the Holy Spirit, will say to them, "Primates, elders, and rulers of the Communion, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to people who are despised and scorned. You ask us how these people can be made whole. Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of the world, that these lgbt folks are standing before you in good spiritual health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus, `the stone that was rejected, has become the cornerstone.'
If you think the pain and condemnation and isolation we felt are just ancient history, a part of the generation of Ernest and me as two old men, watch
this brief video asking yourself what Jesus would say to this young woman if they met her at a well, and contrast that to what those yelling against the Episcopal Church would say to her.
I was fortunate to teach in Beijing in 1983-84, in the early days of China's opening up to teachers from abroad --- “foreign experts’ they called us. On local campuses like mine (Er Wai, the Second Foreign Language Institute), the communist party, which ran all of the education in China, had so long demonized westerners that for some it was not an easy transition to welcome us. Their government was welcoming us, but it had previously taught them to despise us.
Sometimes their conflicts were humorous. For example, all of a sudden party leaders on my campus cancelled Christmas in 1983. No students were known to be Christian, but as majors in foreign languages, they were interested in foreign cultures. Not surprisingly, many of my students sent me Christmas cards, much as one might send a valentine without a belief in Cupid.
A week before Christmas, a major party leader paid me a social visit and delighted in telling me that he had gone to a Methodist school before Liberation in 1948. With forced casualness, he made this small talk while inspecting each of the Christmas cards I had on display, even jotting down names of some of the students.
The good news was that they had used only their English names, and he knew them only by their Chinese names. He could not even be sure whether the cards were from students or from my friends back home. My students were safe.
One night, walking from my classroom building to my residence, I heard a piano, and asked the young teacher assigned to me as my interpreter to arrange for me to play it. He said he would, but didn’t, even after many requests. He was fond of me, but exasperated by my cultural ignorance. “Don’t you understand!” he exclaimed after my fifth or sixth request, “that piano is in the room where the party meets and you will never be allowed in it!”
“But what’s in the room besides the piano that could possibly be of interest to me?” I asked.
“The party files are there!”
“They are in English?” I asked, with a Cheshire smile.
“They are in Chinese, of course!”
“And you think, or they think that secretly I am a spy fluent in written as well as spoken Chinese?”
“They have heard of such spies, yes,” he replied.
“And just what kind of secrets would be in the cabinet of the Second Foreign Language Institute to make it worth the U.S. government’s time and money to hire a specialist rarely trained in Chinese to ferret out?”
“I had not thought of it that way,” my young colleague replied.
“That’s the problem!” I exclaimed. “No one is thinking very much. All I want to do is play some hymns to help me grieve the deaths of both my parents last year.’
However, they were right in considering me subversive. How else could I claim to be a teacher, one who "leads out"?
In the middle of one term, I was given only a week’s notice that I was to give several lectures on rhetoric to all English majors (about 150 of them). Given the shortage of text books, I chose numerous short passages easily written on the blackboard as the focus of our study on author’s strategy. The 23rd Psalm was my centerpiece.
- What is the psalmist’s strategy here?
- What assumptions does the psalmist make about sheep?
- If you were going to rewrite the psalm for the assumptions of your culture, you would not call the supreme power your “shepherd”; would you begin “The supreme power is my Party Boss”? or “God is my President. I shall not lack for anything”?
- What other collocations would work for you? Caveat: For any to work, you also have to change not only the shepherd in the original, but also the sheep. You would no longer be speaking as a sheep about her/his shepherd. What role would you assign yourself in relation to the Party Boss of President as your supreme power?
- Or would you acknowledge anyone on earth or beyond the power of a supreme being?
Notice too the radical shift in point of view that the psalmist sneaks in. The psalm begins in the third person, a matter-of-fact assertion for the readers to take or leave; and remember, the psalms were written to be read in communal settings.
God is my shepherd. He makes me.... He leads me. He restores my soul.
The sheep (the reader) talks about God through this part of the psalm. Then without warning, the sheep (the reader) talks to God.
Iwill fear no evil because you are with me. Your rod, your staff....
The psalmist as slipped the reader into a relationship with God, not just a converation about God.
Six years later a few of my students, already graduated, were among the participants in the pro-democracy movement that came to such fierce conclusion in the massacres of students in Tiananmen Square.
What modern metaphors would you use to replace “shepherd” and “sheep” in a new version of the 23rd Psalm to explain who God is to you and who you are to God?
1 John 3:16-24
I like to collect and compare short lists of the ‘most essential’ commandments -- for example, Moses’ big 10, Jesus’ 2, Micah’s 3, et al.
I also like to collect tests that biblical personages give to determine that you are a Christian. For example, Jesus said, “By this shall all know that you are my disciples, that you love one another>
In this text, John offers as a fool-proof test that the spirit of God is in us:
- Believe on the name of Jesus
- love one another. The presence of the spirit in us is the fool-proof test.
No other exclusions? No other exclusions. Well, what if you believe in Allah or Buddha or …..
In the fourth gospel Jesus warns us against thinking that we know all about who is included and who is excluded: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
What if lgbt people are these sheep?
What if Muslims are these sheep?
Ecumenism requires more humility than many can muster.