Of Orlando and the Virtue of Embrace

Early yesterday morning, a twenty-nine-year-old man, full of hatred and armed to the teeth, walked into the Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida, and proceeded to murder fifty people and wound scores more.  It is the most devastating mass shooting in American history.  It specifically targeted the LGBT community.

In April of 1999, when two young men entered Columbine High School and began their massacre, I was twenty-five years old.  I was young enough to remember vividly the experience of being in high school: in the library working on some project, in the cafeteria with friends.  The familiarity of those spaces and my ability to imagine myself as a student at Columbine High School rendered that shooting intimately personal for me.  It was a long time before I was able to think of Columbine without being overcome by emotion.

My life-long friends Elizabeth Bridges and Audra Hamilton, one gay and the other not, have both written with eloquence and passion in the past several hours about the way in which gay bars and night clubs are, for the LGBT community, places of sanctuary.  In a Facebook post, Audra, who is not gay, speaks poignantly of the way in which she has always felt comfortable with friends in gay night clubs.  She muses why this is so, and offers this: “I suspect it was…because the people who were there had fought so hard to create a place of acceptance for themselves…and I was a beneficiary of that space and that love. I felt free to be myself, because they did. And they welcomed me.”

Orlando shooting

The complex role of gay bars and night clubs in LGBT culture is news to me; I had been unaware.  Though I minister to many gay and lesbian Christians, and though I am blessed to have gay and lesbian members in my family, I am unfamiliar with much of gay culture.  And so, unlike Columbine, which resonated with familiar images and thus hit me viscerally, I am only just beginning to grasp the wound to the soul of the LGBT community caused by yesterday’s massacre in Orlando, which may be more devastating even than the death toll.

This is, I believe, part of our collective challenge. We in the United States have striven to become a tolerant society.  But mere tolerance doesn’t breed familiarity, and without familiarity there is little chance for understanding.  Tolerance is a passive virtue.  It says, in essence, “I can abide your presence in proximity to me, but I do not want to know you.”

I have plumbed the depths of the Gospels, and nowhere do I find Jesus exhibiting tolerance.  Rather, Jesus embraces.  Embrace is an active virtue, the preeminent Gospel virtue.  Again and again, Jesus embraces the one who is outcast, who exists on the margins, who is maligned.  Through his embrace, which comes in the forms both of physical contact and words of acceptance, Jesus declares that, in God, there are no outcasts, there are no margins, and woe be it to anyone who maligns any one of God’s blessed and beloved children.

Jesus healing blind man

With God’s help, Christ Church Cathedral, where I have the privilege to serve as dean, strives to be a Christian community of embrace.  The Cathedral is, by definition, a sanctuary, and into its precincts are welcomed any and all who seek to know the God who is love.  Indeed, just a day before the terror attack in Orlando, the Justice & Peace Council of Christ Church hosted its fourth annual “Coming Out in Church” forum, an event which creates a safe space for LGBT Christians to express their faith and for the Church to embrace them in the fullness of, and not despite, their sexual orientation.  I was honored to be on the panel for this year’s forum.

Coming Out in Church, 2016

Coming Out in Church Panel

Who needs the embrace of Christ’s whole church this morning?  Surely, the Orlando community writ large, who are reeling from yesterday’s disaster and will be for a long time.  Surely, the LGBT community, who have been made to feel, as I felt after Columbine all those years ago, acutely vulnerable.  And surely the mainstream Muslim community in this country, who must contend now not only with age-old mistrust between Christians and Muslims (and vice versa), but also with the radicalized element within Islam whose very goal is to pit the rest of us against all our Muslim neighbors, the overwhelming majority of whom desire God’s peace just as I do.

Across social media, the question has been asked in the past twenty-four hours, by people across the social, ideological, and political spectra: “With whom do you stand?”

God willing, now as always, I stand with Jesus, because I believe Jesus is God Incarnate.  And in this instance, I have no doubt where Jesus stands.  Jesus stands in embrace of all of God’s children who are afraid, who are suffering, and who wonder what today will bring.  With Jesus supporting my faltering knees, I stand in embrace of my LGBT brothers and sisters.  I stand in embrace of all people of good will, and of any faith, who seek to know the God of love and also seek God’s peace.  Whatever today brings, we will face it together.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you and those you love, this day and always.  Amen.

Mary Magdalene receives her due

In 2003, author Dan Brown published his sensationalistic novel The DaVinci Code, and three years later the book was followed by a movie of the same title starring Tom Hanks.  The DaVinci Code caused controversy by its supposition that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who then bore him children.  Because of this storyline, interest in the person of Mary Magdalene spiked.

As a result, many people developed a renewed interest in the apocryphal gospel accounts of Mary, especially in the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip, discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1896 and 1945, respectively.  At one point, the Gospel of Philip mentions a kiss between Jesus and Mary, and some keyed onto that particular passage as real-life evidence of Dan Brown’s fictional thesis.

DaVinciCode

Alas, both the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip were written centuries after the events of Jesus’ and Mary’s lives (and at least a century after all four biblical Gospels.)  The Gospel of Philip is also a Gnostic text, and in Gnosticism the “kiss” serves as a metaphor for the transmission of sacred knowledge.  So, rather than Jesus experiencing a romantic interlude with Mary, the Gospel of Philip portrays Jesus passing along to Mary privileged and holy information about salvation and grace.

That actually tells us much more about the real Mary Magdalene and her relationship with Jesus than any fanciful storyline in a cloak-and-dagger novel can do.  There are many problems with the apocryphal gospels, and good reason they have never been considered scripture by the Christian world, but what they get right is Mary’s portrayal as a leader among Jesus’ most important and trusted intimates.  For example, the Gospel of Mary portrays Mary sitting the apostles down and teaching them—even Peter—the meaning of Jesus’ message.  It gives her pride of place among the Twelve.  This is almost certainly a fair depiction of Mary’s stature among Jesus’ inner circle.

Gospel_of_Mary

A fragment of the Gospel of Mary papyrus

After all, the four canonical Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—all portray Mary Magdalene as the first eyewitness to the Resurrection.  She is first to reach the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning, and she is the first to take the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the apostles, who, I might add, all still cower in hiding after the crucifixion.  As a result, Gregory the Great referred to Mary as the “first witness of Divine Mercy,” and Hippolytus of Rome called Mary the apostle to the apostles.

Giovanni_Bellini_Mary_Magdalene

Bellini’s Mary Magdalene

In Anglicanism, Mary Magdalene has often been studied and revered.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, last week Mary finally received recognition commensurate with her role in salvation history.  On June 10, Pope Francis declared that Mary Magdalene’s annual observance will henceforth be a full feast day on the Roman Catholic Church’s calendar, on equal par with the feast days of the twelve apostles.  Pope Francis titled his decree “Apostle of the Apostles,” to honor this singular woman who, first among all humanity, experienced the joy of the risen Lord.

It’s about time Mary Magdalene received her due.

Does religion have anything to say?

Biblical scholar Alan Culpepper says this about today’s Gospel reading: “The widow’s only son had died.  We do not know their names, his age, or the cause of his death.  In the end, none of that matters—only that she had already lost her husband and now she has lost her only child.  James says, ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.’  Had Jesus passed by that funeral procession on the other side when he had the power to stop it, none of his other works would have made much difference.  If religion has nothing to say to a grieving widow, it has nothing to say.”[i]

We know that religion can be used and misused for all sorts of ends, in all sorts of ways both laudable and perverse.  (We become acutely aware of this fact whenever we are in an election season.)  Religion can be a tool of those in power, a means by which to fleece people of their money, an opiate of the masses, or it can be a bastion of tradition and a vital connection to the past as well as a spur to important social change.  For good and ill, religion has been, is, and can be, all of these.  But if religion—specifically our religion, Christianity—has nothing to say to a grieving widow, then it has nothing legitimate to say at all.  By extension, if Christianity has nothing to say to those who are dying, those who are perched on the very ledge, those who are lonely and lost, then it has nothing to say.

There are versions of Christianity that I wish sometimes really did have nothing to say.  There are expressions of our faith that take Gospel stories of healing and interpret them in odious ways.  In many such stories, Jesus will remark that the faith of the healed person or the faith of those around him has accomplished the healing.  “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus will say.  And preachers have long extrapolated, therefore, that today’s razor’s-edge difference between cure and illness, or even life and death, is whether or not we have enough faith, whether or not we believe strongly enough.  The damage of such preaching runs deep.  As a singular example, the parents of children who have died—including some children denied medical care in favor of faith healing and prayer—must then suffer doubly, both for the loss of their child and also in the grotesque conclusion that had their belief in Jesus been just a little more potent their child might still be alive, death might have been avoided.

John Oliver

John Oliver recently aired a segment on expressions of Christianity that fleece vulnerable people.

 

Hear me say that that’s not what Luke implies in any of these stories, and it’s certainly not what’s going on in the little village of Nain this morning.  Jesus surely has something to say to this grieving widow, but it is not that.  So, let’s look at the story more closely.

The dire circumstance of this passage is revealed its most poignant phrase.  Of the dead man and his mother, Luke says, “He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow.”  Understood through a first century lens, this means that this woman has lost everything.  Upon the death of husband, her present had been taken from her: her means of sustenance and protection gone.  Now, upon the death of her son, her future has been taken from her. Her social security into old age has evaporated.  And with the death of both, who were the carriers of the name she shares, she is, essentially, nameless.  The community won’t know what to do with her, how to treat her, where to send her, what to say to her.  She has become no one.  She is the least, the lonely, and the lost.

This is the moment Jesus arrives at Nain.  This is the moment, as Alan Culpepper says, that Jesus must act if the Gospel is to mean anything at all.  So what does Jesus do?  The easy answer is that he resuscitates the son, but if we get there too quickly we’ll miss the meaning of the story. Importantly, Luke tells us that, upon arrival, Jesus immediately “comes forward and touches the bier,” the platform on which the corpse lies.  He touches the bier.  Rather than skirting the edges of this funeral procession or even walking alongside the widow in her grief, Jesus moves directly into the center of this march of death and makes contact with death itself.

This is remarkable on two levels.  On the first level, this detail would have scandalized Luke’s original readers, because Jesus here defies both social convention and Jewish purity law.  He willfully and purposefully touches the corpse.  On the second level, and the reason Jesus does so, is to demonstrate more loudly than words can convey that he will not skirt around the edges of the widow’s grief.  He will not offer shallow platitudes or pity in response to her sorrow.  Jesus will walk into the very center of her loss.

Widow at Nain

Listen very carefully to this part.  Often this passage is read as a story about a dead man, but the main character, as we’ve seen, is the woman, who stands in for any and all those who have lost everything, who have plummeted to the depths in life, who have become no one.  Jesus will do for her what the world will not do.  Jesus will, with all eyes upon him, move directly to the very center and source of the widow’s loss, sorrow, and pain and embrace them.  Jesus will claim her loss, and her being, as his own.  Jesus grafts her identity to his, so that she is no longer no one.  She is one who belongs to Jesus.  Even before the son sits upright, she has received her life back again, and it is new life, because at its center are not things that die, but Christ—the gracious love of God—who does not die.  As Jesus touches the corpse, I suspect he looks at the mother, so that to both he says, “I say to you, rise!”  The son is resuscitated, but his mother is resurrected.

Do you see?  This is not a story about avoiding death.  It is not telling us that if we believe strongly enough or pray hard enough we will stave off death.  Death comes.  Loss comes.  Disaster comes.  Sometimes we lose absolutely everything we hold dear in this world.  This story tells us as much, and it tells us that, in the throes of such painful experiences Jesus does not walk the other way, and neither does Jesus skirt around the edges.  Jesus marches straight to the center of our pain and touches it with God’s grace.  As Alan Culpepper hopes, Jesus, indeed, has something to say. “Rise!” are his words to the widow, as well as to the son, and to us even today. “You belong to me, and on the other side of any death, I will give you life.”

This is a pivotal moment in Luke’s Gospel.  In the very next verses after today’s passage, the disciples of John the Baptist, who is in prison, travel three days to get to Jesus and ask, “Are you the one?”  They want to know, as the readers of Luke’s Gospel wanted to know, and as we want to know, who Jesus is.  They want to know if Jesus is a holy man, a prophet, and a teacher like John, or if, hope against hope, he might be something even more.  And Jesus will respond to them simply, by asking, “What do you see?”

That is the question for John’s disciples, and it is the question for us.  When we look at Jesus, what do we see?  We don’t see only a teacher of ethics.  We don’t see merely a holy example.  We don’t see just a prophet who preaches a better world.  We see all of these things, but not only these things.  We also and primarily see the one who refuses to skirt around the edges of our lives.  We see the one who will walk steadily into the depth of our loss and our loneliness and our fear—those things that threaten to strip us of our very sense of who we are and leave us as no one, whatever they may be—and raise us to new life on their other side.

Since 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism has asked, “What is our only comfort in life and death?”  And the catechism’s answer is, “That I am not my own, but belong both in life and death to Jesus Christ.”  Trusting that is what faith is.  Trusting that is what sees us through all the deaths in this life and at the end of this life, and into the new life that comes with the sure knowledge that we are Christ’s own.

[i] Culpepper, R. Alan.  The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume IX, pg. 159.