Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9
In the early 1980s I recall seeing a stranger in a railway station wearing a jersey with the logo of my prep school. He was much younger than I, and he had obviously attended after the school had integrated racially. I was delighted and moved to introduce myself. “I am Louie Crew, Class of 1954, and you?”
He looked at me like I was crazy. “Man, what are you talking about? I don’t know you.” Nor did he sound like he wanted to know me.
“Sorry,” I said, “I saw your jersey and thought too you went to the McCallie School in Chattanooga.”
“This is just a shirt, man,” he said as he rushed away to his train.
It’s easy for us to come to today’s passage from the Wisdom of Solomon thinking we know what it’s all about, and miss the point, because for us the text is “just a shirt, man” -- and carries little of the meaning and importance that it has for the Jews who wrote it.
The author (writing with imprimatur of King Solomon though not necessarily King Solomon himself) is asking a question that at some point in our lives becomes very personal to each one of us: “What will happen to me when I die?”
Most of us asked that question even when we were small children, especially when deaths occurred in our family. Some of us have asked it quite poignantly after the death of a parent, for our parents’ deaths prefigure our own, since through them God gave us life.
Now that I am in my 70s, I find that I must take care lest I become morbid with the question, “What will happen to me when I die?” I am one of the younger residents in our coop with 400 apartments. When I greet people on the elevator with “Hello. How are you?”, some say, “I can’t complain. I am above ground.”
The author of the Wisdom passage answers the question forthwith: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.”
It’s easy for us Christians to say, “Ah, that’s a jersey with a logo that I recognize: we are from down home. The author is talking about Christians.”
This author is not talking about Christians. The phrase The righteous has a very special meaning for the original audience that we Christians do not give to it. “The righteous” in the Hebrew scriptures are those whom God has tested and found worthy:
like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.
In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble.
In Hebrew scriptures, one gets to heaven by passing all the tests and being proved good enough.
In Christian scriptures, one gets to heaven because Jesus passed all the tests and was good enough: Christians are justified not by our good works, but by Christ’s. We don’t have to pass the tests. We do good works not to get into heaven, but in our gratitude that in our baptism we have already been marked as God’s own forever.
I asked persons on the bishops-deputies listserv to choose their favorite from my collection One Hundred and One Reasons to be Episcopalian and they ranked highest one by the Rev. Tom VanCulin in Honolulu:
“ God loves you, and there is not a thing you can do to change that!
The respondents ranked as their second most popular reason to be an Episcopalian one from the Rev. Phil Wilson at Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, NJ:
“The only requirement to take Communion is that you be hungry!”
Yes, we all our tested. Yes, we all are placed in a refiner’s fire. Yes, the tests strengthen our character, as today’s passage from the Wisdom of Solomon poignantly describes, and yes, God “watches over the elect”; but we are elected by Jesus’ actions, not by our own.
That is good news. I greet you as “saints.” Your righteousness has been achieved for you by the God of the universe. Enjoy it. Spread the good news.
Psalm 24 continues the emphasis of the Wisdom text that God rewards us because of our righteousness:
“Who can ascend the hill of the LORD? " *
and who can stand in his holy place?"
"Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, *
who have not pledged themselves to falsehood,
nor sworn by what is a fraud.
They shall receive a blessing from the LORD *
and a just reward from the God of their salvation."
Suppose an unholy person stands in a holy place. Suppose the priest blessing you or pronouncing forgiveness to you is a person who has just committed a grave sin. Does that sin cancel the blessing or the forgiveness you have received? No. According to traditional church teaching, the acts of a priest have efficacy not because of the merit of the individual priest but because of the office of priesthood that God through the church has bestowed on the priest.
So too for the priesthood of the individual believers, the great body of all believers, like Jesus, lay priests after the order of Melchizedek: the good we do has efficacy, has effectiveness, not because of our state of grace or lack thereof, but because of God’s great goodness and mercy.
Today’s epistle comes from the penultimate chapter in all of the bible. In it, John envisions a new heaven and a new earth. In it, “Death will be no more.”
“What will happen to us when we die?” John proclaims that wee will dwell in that new heaven and new earth.
John stresses not so much that we will be with God, but that God will be with us. “See, the home of God is among mortals.”
Strange religion. Our God not only made us: God prefers our company.
A few years ago, someone asked on an Episcopal listserv, “Any suggestions or advice regarding pastoral care for Gays and Lesbians?”
I am in a Pastoral Care class at seminary. I signed up with several guys to do a presentation on Gay and Lesbian pastoral issues.
I felt drawn to talk about coming out issues. Does anyone have any suggestion or material on counseling folks who are dealing with coming out issues?
I offered two suggestions from Scripture: Today's Lazarus story (come out! with all your stinky clothes) and the story of Queen Esther (you are family, sugar, and you can continue to enjoy the privileges of this closet only if you collaborate, only if you become a closet militant).
Dr. King said, "Unmerited suffering is always redemptive." I phrase that differently, "Unmerited suffering is always meant to be redemptive; therefore work to make it so."
Not every coming out is an unqualified blessing. Even in some of the better dynamics, one pays a price, sometimes a big price. If at all possible, time your coming out to maximize the redemption purchased with your holy sacrifice.
Trust no formulas. There are some who need to let a hateful parent finish paying the college bills before saying, 'Yoo-hoo, hi there! Guess what!' There are some who need to pay their own college bills with a wry smile. There are some who will enable parental love they had not yet seen....
Don't demonize your family and friends: it is understandable that immediate family members are concerned about what the extended family, even what the neighbors will think, not just about the lgbt child, but about their parenting. Some have been taught to think that we are their 'mistake.' They loved us too much! or they were cold and distant! Some are dealing with all sorts of stereotypes of themselves, not just of us.
But is their concern about the family and the neighbors more important than our breathing? than our spiritual health?! I have seen many students' eyes light up when I have asked that question, as if a millstone had just been removed from around their necks.
The biggest fear I had when in the closet, ages and ages ago--but until I was 28--was that somehow I would be embracing all my stereotypes of who lgbt people are. What a big surprise to discover just the opposite, that in my newly claimed wholeness I had the birthright (or the 're-birth right') to know that whatever else others think lgbts are, they're wrong if they don't include me just as I am.
Coming out did not make me have to be someone else; coming out gave me the freedom to be myself, to be whole, as I had never been before.
Another big surprise in coming out was to discover that I am really not the center of the universe. Protecting my closet, not wanting to be who I was, trying to account for it....... voraciously consumed vital energy. Secret sexual identity was so absorbing that it threatened to define me. `How will family and friends react if ever they discover that I am not who they think I am, but queer?...' I felt they could not possibly love or respect me, for I had grave problems in loving and respecting myself.
In the closet it took enormous discipline even to think about anything else or anyone else for extended periods of time. Sexuality loomed extremely large, disproportionately so. No wonder that I gave evidence to the stereotype that we are neurotic. I was fast becoming so.
But when I came out, sexuality became just sexuality, integral to who I am, all the more delightful because not furtive or anonymous, but by no means definitive.
I got a life, a new life. I was born again with a new spirit, one that turned not inward on itself, but outward towards others in God's marvelous creation.
People who counsel lesbians and gays in the closet need to be very careful not to get their own sense of worth by having such a lovely bird in a cage. From the first day of such counsel, they need to envision the joy of flight when the cage door opens.
It is far easier to help people adjust to the closet than it is to prepare them for survival outside it.
Some who knew my secret and were trusted confidants while I was a caterpillar in the cocoon where they kept sacred vigil were not altogether happy with the lovely mariposa when I emerged. Some found it easier to be my protector than to be my peer. Maybe that's inevitable? God blesses them also.
God, holy and immortal one, as Jesus you stayed in a closet much of your ministry, later to emerge as the Christ, the son of the Living God. Help all of us in transition to be whole, in this life, and in transition to the life to come. AMEN
Note: You can listen to my own sermon for this date -- preached at Trinity Church in Columbus, Ohio. I used only bits and pieces from the material above.
Thank you for your interest. -- Louie Crew