Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Oldies File: Embracing the Outcast Spirit of God

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
24 August 2003
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Paul’s Memorial Church
at the University of Virginia

With all of the changes and controversy going on in the Episcopal Church, I was thrust into the fire two weeks ago, as the scheduled preacher after the wild week of our General Convention. It was my first Sunday back in the pulpit after being away. Because of the lively media buzz around the Church just then, I was unable to give my yearly sermon: on how I spent my summer vacation. Here we go.

Due to time limits, I can only offer a few of my vacation highlights. It also might be nice to put Bishop Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Church, aside for a moment. He’s not going away. He’s still coming to dinner. For a little over a week in July, I went to every minor league baseball game I could find: in the states of Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Now that’s a vacation. Armed only with my journal and NPR on the radio, I saw teams with wonderful names; from the Portland Sea Dogs, to the Lowell Spinners, the Nashua Pride, and the Bangor Lumberjacks.

As some of you may know, baseball is my first religion. This is just my day job. And I have always had a special affection for the minor leagues; how can you not love something that proudly calls itself “minor?” Nobody else ever admits they are. Many minor league players are working hard to get by financially, playing for love more than anything, and a last chance at a dream. If you like the underdog, impossible odds, tilting at windmills, and those who don’t take no for an answer, the minor leagues are just the place. Every ballpark is different, full of local flavor. At the ballpark it is natural to recall the past, as you slow down for a summer evening; golden memories of better, more innocent days come back on the summer breeze.

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” a songwriter once asked us, during a time of painful change and upheaval. It was such a simple question; a haunted and nimble economy of words.

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”
“A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

In a time of controversy, the dreamers must dream again, digging among forgotten memories and heroes of the past. Minor league baseball became something like a compost pile that I decided to tend for a week, seeing what if anything would grow. The players, from every part of the country, are chasing a dream, to the very end; when something childlike must be laid to rest. Being able to follow your dream is what this country is all about. Deep in our bones, the pursuit of our dreams is a sacred human need. Most of the minor league players never make it. But the chase, the story, just an opportunity means everything. Baseball is just a game. But it is also can be a mirror of our democracy in action. Sometimes sports, at their best, on a level playing field, can heal divisions and wounds no other activity could reach; with the tender fingers of our common humanity.

In his book Life on the Run, the former basketball player, Rhodes Scholar, and senator Bill Bradley wrote about how basketball changed him and how he saw others; especially those from backgrounds different from his own. In his words, at the summit of success as a New York Knick:

“In the locker room after our second championship, as I looked around at my teammates I thought of how I liked something about each of them. They were good people, and from our sharing these unique moments they would be forever different from other people. I saw our reflections in the lives of nomadic Indian tribes on the Plains, making the group adjustments necessary to exist in a constantly changing environment…Our friendship was based on deeds accomplished together. It even seemed at times like that night to seal the split between the white and black races. ‘There warn’t no home like a raft, after all,’ says Huck Finn. ‘You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.’ Being a championship team is like being on that raft, floating down the Mississippi.”

The experience of a common journey can change our vision of each other, the boundaries that separate us. Is what divides humanity more powerful than what is common to every human being? Genetically, we are 99.9% the same. Can tolerance be stretched too far? Much depends on where you sit to answer the questions; who you are and how you remember your own history. But there are landmarks in our past, lamps lit to mark the way we have come before.

Change can sometimes hit us like a lightning bolt, thunder rumbling for miles. America was once shaken to its very core by one man who stood alone. Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson was a revolution in cleats (spikes actually). His presence on the baseball field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 as the first black player was also a flaming meteor of change moving through our society. Jackie Robinson was a biblical event. He was an athletic apocalypse. Robinson endured abuse beyond our comprehension. All of the Hell that is trapped in the human heart came at him head on. Yet he could not fight back, no matter what happened; a Christlike discipline he lived everyday. Many Americans saw him as the devil incarnate.

As a player, Robinson had a rare combination of power and speed, one that had never been seen before. He was a fearsome hitter, but what rattled our hearts was Jackie Robinson the baserunner. He was audacity personified, a daring and taunting artist. More than that, we all noticed: he was beautiful. On the bases, his silent rage became deafening. It rose like a song buried deep within. It was as if he were speaking to all of us:

I am poetry in motion. I am God’s lyric of change. You can’t stop me. I cannot stop myself. I am childhood triumphant. I’m going to steal home before your very eyes. Watch me do it. I am a raft floating down the mighty Mississippi River. I am free. I am a free man. I am a child of God.

The forces of hatred and darkness never had a better target out in the open. How can someone be all alone with millions watching? Robinson was on a team, but he stood alone. You are not alone, we wanted to tell him. Television was bringing it all home. Baseball became more than a game in 1947, it was an opera.

The purest gesture of simple humanity, so small yet unforgettable, came from the captain of the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was the quiet body language of shortstop Pee Wee Reese that helped all of us turn the tide. At a game in Philadelphia, Reese took the field with his black teammate. The verbal detritus of ignorance and hatred was swirling from the grandstand and the Philadelphia dugout. It is amazing that God gives us the power of speech. As the crowd watched the Dodger players take the field, Reese did something for all of us, for all time. Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Jackie Robinson and held him. In front of all America. That was all. The simplest gesture of touch, common humanity, and affection. It was a lightning bolt from heaven.

Sometimes all any of us can say, in whatever language at hand, is just that: I am with you. I am with you. The two of us are stronger as one. You are not alone. I got your back. The invitation to go deeper into the mystery of God’s love and our common humanity has come to us again, in our time.

It was at historic Holman Stadium in Nashua, New Hampshire, that my worlds finally collided on my field of dreams road trip. In the grandstand, I found myself in a conversation with two Nashua fans. The subject: the local New Hampshire celebrity, the new Episcopal bishop. I just couldn’t get away from the Church, even at a game between the Nashua Pride and the Long Island Ducks. My two new friends, both Roman Catholics, know Gene Robinson personally; it’s a small state, after all. The husband and wife were most fascinated with the empowerment of our lay people, at the highest levels of Episcopal Church governance; both in the diocesan election that elected Robinson and at General Convention. The people were allowed voice and vote, and they spoke.

Don’t worry, I didn’t ever lose my focus on the game. Nashua lost 6-4. What a shame.

But I did contemplate the voice of the people that we have heard, and also the House of Bishops, choosing to follow a path of inclusion, embracing a gay man as a rightfully elected and confirmed bishop of the Church. Is there a price that is too high for such a step by an individual diocese and by the autonomous American Church? Must one diocese ignore its conscience to keep the peace? Curiously, lost in the sound and the fury of our General Convention was the silent scandal: the continued, blatant discrimination against women--by holdout bishops in dioceses in this country who still refuse to ordain women. No one seems to be offended by that. That’s called diversity. Women’s ordination will not come to much of the Anglican Communion in our lifetime.

As I left historic Holman Stadium, an interesting thing happened. Leaving the park, I noticed something: a bronze historical marker. I could have easily missed it. It told the story of the place where I stood: Holman Stadium was the first integrated ballpark in the United States of America. The Nashua club, now the Pride, was the first American professional team to have black players. Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella, both future Dodgers, played for Nashua the same year Jackie Robinson was in the minors in Montreal. You can look it up. Good for New Hampshire.

Sometimes the eternal players watch the minor leagues for a change.

Our Church and society are now in a period of significant change and upheaval again; changing definitions of who can be a family, and what makes a marriage, are before us. As Episcopalians and Anglicans worldwide consider what it means to be in communion with each other, whether unity has a breaking point, we are also discovering each other anew; pondering again the question of who is my neighbor. This timeless question transformed Jesus Christ; and he followed its full implications to Calvary.

How are we to follow him now?

As we debate who is or who is not acceptable in the eyes of God, let us all remember how we got here. We are not the chosen people. We are warming ourselves at a fire we did not build; drinking from a well we did not dig. We were once the outcasts: the underdogs, the impure, the practitioners of abominations, the Gentiles. The messiah did not come to earth for us. But he changed his mind when he met us. When he saw our faith.

Do you know how much sacred Tradition Jesus put into question when he changed his mind about us?

Yet we have moved so confidently to the manor, and the halls of power, it is breathtaking. No one has forgotten his spiritual roots more completely than the white American Christian.

There has been much discussion about the role of Scripture of late, and how it informs our common life. St. Paul offers advice this morning, particularly for the women in the congregation. We all heard it. Paul presents a vision of a benevolent hierarchy, responsive to the needs of others. The vision was progressive at the time; power and privilege were to be used responsibly by men over others. Power should not to be abused. I can’t object to that. These are helpful words for husbands, patriarchs, and slave owners. But they are not enough for us now. I am not a woman. But I believe St. Paul was wrong here. Equality and freedom are the only foundation I can imagine for a just society. Equality and freedom are the foundation of the Church I love. Equality and freedom are the best description of what a Christian marriage should be.

Fear of the Other, fear of the outsider, is the long and painful history of humankind. Yet the messianic ministry of Jesus Christ embraced the outcast on a daily basis; risking scandal, courting failure and rejection, spilling the treasures of his Hebrew God everywhere. Jesus was able to see a person of faith beyond the category, the group, the sacred boundary. He was able to see a child of God in the outcast, the outsider. He was able to see a child of God in us.

The next time the Purity Codes of ancient Israel seem to be the final Word of God regarding normative sexual ethics, please read all of the Purity Codes. They are the foundation of the biblical authority argument. You will find out that you are ritually impure right now; you have been practicing abominations your whole life. The Virginia ham alone… Leviticus spells it all out. Biblical authority today is selective for Christians, but it is not random; it is often used to preserve our sacred prejudices: these are the ones we share with God. Any of the purity requirements, if not observed, made a Jew just as unclean. Unclean was unclean. There was no hierarchy. We have put one there.

The interpretive tendency of many Christians is then, in honest and open practice, quite similar to what Anglicans have been doing for centuries: with the three pillars of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. They represent the Anglican dialectic at its best, one that expects and even demands change in the ongoing life of the Church and society. And when the Church lacks the courage and stomach to lead just changes, God’s will can move through society instead. The progress of science and other fields of research are also spiritual guides to the will of God. Religious leaders are clearly making judgments about what is really important and lasting in the Scriptural record, and what is more limited historically.

For example: Christians, of every stripe and denomination, were able to use Reason, personal experience, and perhaps even compassion in reversing the long tradition and clear biblical directive in the area of divorce. This new interpretation overcame the unambiguous teachings of Jesus himself; it was a remarkably progressive interpretation of Scripture, one which rejected centuries of Tradition overnight. Jesus didn’t use the Purity Codes in his own teaching; he wasn’t particularly interested in them. He used the 10 Commandments, the major league Torah, adultery. Divorce was just a speed bump for the Church and its majority of heterosexual members moving into the brave, new world of progress. It was the right decision. But our ability to radically adapt Scripture for the important people should trouble all of us. There is a word for what we have been doing. Jesus liked to use it. The word is hypocrisy.

As I read the vitriol directed at the American Church generally and at Gene Robinson personally, I cannot believe that one gay man from New Hampshire is responsible for all of this outrage. It doesn’t add up. There is no proportion here. You protest too much. Our own Bishop Peter Lee has been bombarded with hate mail and abuse for voting to confirm the election in New Hampshire. The states rights argument didn’t fly very far.

What did Gene Robinson do that was so bad?

Gene Robinson broke the gentleman’s agreement. These agreements are the arrangements, never written down, which govern human society and hierarchy, both visible and hidden. They are more important than Scripture in how things get done. In the real world. Variations of the gentleman’s agreement have always been part of the Church. Gene Robinson, like any other American child who grows up, has a chance of being judged and accepted for his abilities, his determination, and oh yes--the content of his character. He can even be a priest if he is very careful. There is a catch, however; or there used to be. A gay man or a lesbian woman must always remain hidden to be accepted, an invisible outsider. Gene Robinson simply stopped hiding. Not only that, he went even further. Denied the means of grace by the Church he has served and loved, he formed a monogamous relationship with another man, all on his own. This relationship is thirteen years old; we still don’t have a name for it.

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”

Joe DiMaggio hasn’t gone anywhere. That’s the funny thing about our inner circle. Once upon a time, not long ago, it was the Italian Americans who were the dark outsiders, ruining our neighborhoods, cooking with all of that garlic, threatening the virtue of our daughters. But we fell in love with the elegant grace of an Italian man, whose parents didn’t even speak English (they also thought baseball was folly—how much people have to learn…). We fell in love with joltin’ Joe DiMaggio--born Giuseppe Paulo, a man of style who always rose to the occasion in the clutch; the Yankee Clipper changed our hearts. Frank Sinatra helped too.

In 1947, the same year Jackie was stealing home, a great movie was made, a movie about the unbelievable depths of prejudice and discrimination in America, the home of the free. The film really should be dated by now, but sadly it isn’t. Gentleman’s Agreement is the story of a reporter named Phil Green. It is the late 1940s, and Green has moved to New York City to do a story on anti-semitism for a magazine. He has read all the statistics, Green even has close Jewish friends—his best friend in Jewish, but he can’t find his angle, the new thing that must be said. He is facing the worst writer’s block of his career. Green laments his assignment:

“There isn’t any way you can break open the secret heart of another human being.”

But then it comes to him. That’s it. He will become Jewish. Nobody knows him in New York; and you can’t necessarily tell a Jew by looking at him, or her. Gregory Peck is mesmerizing in his experiment as Green. (For those of you who hate extra inning games, just so you know, I am rounding third right now; everyone is waving me in…it’s going to be a close play at the plate.)

The next six months are an unbelievable hell for Green, filled with every bigoted nuance and indirect rejection; all manner of insult, hypocrisy, and cowardice, from all of the nice people out there. His son is attacked for his religion by neighborhood children. But Green doesn’t quit; he digs deeper for the truth, down to the bone. His whole way of being human is being called into question; Green is being transformed; sacred edges are being forged in his renewed Christianity. Or rather, he has become Christ like. The reporter will finish his story, but he can never go back.

“I was Jewish for six months,” he wrote to begin his story for the magazine.

These first words lead him inexorably forward not backward in his humanity, imagining changes in human society that will never stop until the Kingdom of God truly reigns. On earth as it is heaven. “I suddenly want to grow to be very old,” his proud mother tells him. “To see how everything turns out.” Phil Green was breaking the gentleman’s agreement. With every word he wrote, a sharp axe was struck to the rotten wood of the human character and soul.

Race. Gender. Sexual orientation. Religion. They are all different. Prejudice is a uniquely adaptive and malignant cancer that must be diagnosed and rooted out. The treatment of gays and lesbians by Church and society has been un-Christian. But more than that, it has also been un-American. If our noble experiment of democracy is to be truly noble, it cannot reserve its most fundamental freedoms and rights and the pursuit of sacred dreams to the powerful few, the inner circle, or a complacent and mediocre majority. We must be a beacon of hope for everyone.

Until we see each other as God sees us, on the inside, as a child of God, we are not finished with the work begun by Jesus Christ. God is the Incarnational outcast. God is the beautiful outsider whose tolerance and love and charity and forgiveness go way too far, never stopping, entering even the mortal clay of the human body for our salvation. Into the common blood we all share. God is the one outside our circle: yet our neighbor. God is there in the least among us, a raft on the Mississippi, floating free. This is the Christ, the God of Humanity, who died that each of us might be reborn and truly live, equals and free, for all eternity.

No comments:

Post a Comment