Saturday, October 16, 2010

Written on Our Hearts

A reflection on Jeremiah 31:27-34 and Psalm 119:97-104 • Luke 18:1-8
Good Shepherd, Berkeley/Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad, Richmond

When I was about 10 years old I had a best friend named Gregory. We lived in the same small apartment building in the outskirts of Silver Spring, Maryland. I lived on the top floor, apt 303 and he lived on the bottom floor, apt 101. I liked Gregory so much because he was not like other boys. He loved to gossip with me and he was very interested in things like clothes and movie stars and junk food and books- all the things I most loved in life.

We would hike together through a little patch of woods to the five and dime and buy comic books, and finish off our afternoon if we could scrape 35 cents together, with an ice cream soda.

One of the many things we had in common was that we both had brilliant, withdrawn older brothers in their teens- creatures who seemed to be above our realm of existence all together. His brother was not just handsome- it has to be said that he was pretty- in fact, he was beautiful. I did not know him well, but sometimes he condescended to spend a little time with us. My girl friends all thought he was dreamy.

One day something indescribably horrible happened. Gregory’s older brother was found hanging from a rope in their apartment. He hung himself the day after he had been walking partway home from school with us as we chatted to each other, and he was as remote as ever.

My father told me that he did it because people said that he was a homosexual.
Even at 10 years old, I knew what that meant, and somehow I knew that that would have been a reason for doing this awful thing. The death of this young boy send shock waves through our small apartment building and all through our community. But no one talked about it. No one said a word.

The next time I saw Gregory, we, of course did not mention what happened. Gregory had had a bit of a stutter, and it became much worse. He had been a little chubby, but now I could see that he was resorting to comfort food in a big way, and not with me anymore. I am sad to say that our relationship seemed to stifle and die in that new silence. What happened to him was too enormous for me to carry with him, and he had to carry it by himself. He moved away with his family not long afterwards, and we never heard from them again.

I was reminded of Gregory and his poor brother as heard about case after case of similar suicides of young gay men- boys really, that took place during September of this year.

All of these boys died because they were, or were thought to be, gay, and had been ceaselessly bullied and harassed, until they took their own lives in despair.

Thirteen year old Asher Brown, of Houston Texas, shot himself after a year and a half of torment, with bullies taunting him about his religious beliefs, his height and of course, his apparent sexual orientation. His mother said that she had continually begged the school to do something, with no results.

Thirteen year old Seth Walsh from Tehachapi, California. hung himself after several years of harassment due to his apparent orientation. A picture shows a sweet, mischievous looking brown-eyed boy, with a lot of life and light in his eyes.

Billy Lucas was a fifteen year old, from Greensboro, Indiana. His parents found his body in his family’s barn. He had been harassed at school for months because of his sexual orientation, and he apparently couldn’t stand it anymore.

Eighteen year old Tyler Clementi, of Rutgers University, a brilliant young violinist jumped off the George Washington bridge after being outed live on the internet by his remarkably vicious roommate.

And 19 year old Raymond Chase, a gay sophomore at Johnson & Wales University in Providence Rhode Island, also hung himself, just like my friend Gregory’s brother. His mother said that he had seemed very happy, but obviously there was a different story.

As religious people, we must feel the full force of these tragedies, because the acts of bullying, and the horrific results, have been supported, have perhaps even been created, by “religious” people and institutions.

I believe we have to do whatever we can to counteract these horrible messages. As Christians, as people following the word of someone of limitless compassion, limitless inclusivity and limitless love, we have to make sure our embrace is wide enough to make a difference to all marginalized people, including and especially the incredibly vulnerable and suffering population of LBGT children and youth.

Bishop Gene Robinson put a video out after several of the tragedies of the past month, addressed to those despairing children who are still suffering. He said in the video, “Maybe you are in a very dark place now because people are telling you, religious people are telling you that you are an abomination against God. Maybe you have been told that you are intrinsically disordered, or that your life is a sin, or that God does not accept you as you are.

He went on to say that he, as a Bishop, as a religious leader, wanted to tell them just the opposite. That God wants them to be just who they are- just who God made them to be. That God loves them, as he loves all of us- more than we could possibly imagine. He said that God loves us all beyond our wildest imagination.

There are many ways in which religious establishments have created an atmosphere that could produce the violence that these boys have suffered. Misquoting the bible, misquoting Jesus, supporting hierarchical, patriarchal structures, naming homosexuality as a sin. But there is one sin that Bishop Robinson did not mention. One that we must not fall into. That is the sin of silence. Silence as complete as the silence my childhood community fell into after the death of that neighbor boy. Silence as complete as the silence I fell into with my shell-shocked friend.

I believe silence is almost as grave a sin as the complicity and promotion of the horrific messages of hate that the clueless bullies have been using like lethal weapons.

We can’t live in a silence like that. We must, like the widow in our Gospel story who over and over again goes to the judge to demand justice, make our voices heard, over and over again. We must, as Jesus tells us, pray continually and not lose heart.

Our Old Testament reading also speaks of hope for us in this time of mourning.

It speaks of an image of humankind that is so complete, so whole, so realized that it is almost heart-breaking. It speaks of a time when we will all have God’s word in our hearts. When we will no longer have to struggle to learn the law. We will no longer have to struggle to avoid sin.

“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” This is a beautiful prophesy. That the compassion, the justice and the love taught by the prophets and lived out to the fullest in the life of Jesus might live inside of us forever- might be written in our hearts. And that we will be forgiven our sins. Even the sin of silence.

I hope we never stop fighting for the justice we seek. I hope and pray that we will redouble our efforts to send out a message of inclusivity and love to all people, especially those vulnerable children and youth who are in such real danger. Let us make this church a welcome house of refuge.
Asher, Tyler, Billy, Seth, Raymond, let this be our memorial to you. And let the way you changed our lives be your resurrection.

St. Francis in the Buff

St. Francis in the Buff
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor, 10/2/10
Good Shepherd, Berkeley

My very first course at Seminary at the Franciscan school, was The Early documents of St. Franacis of Assisi. The professor told us with some exictement, that we would be reading some texts that had been suppressed for 800 years, because they reveaked the less than saintly side of St. Francis.

This encouraged me very much, because I had always felt greatly inferior to the vast generosity and spiriuality of St. Francis. I struggled with an addiction to things and to nice jackets and coats in particular, from which I am recovering one jacket at a time. I knew that Francis only wore brown burlap robes, with a coarse rope for a belt. But in this course I learned that Francis in his youth was actually quite a dandy.

One of his followers, Thomas of Celano, wrote an early life of Francis in 1229:

“Francis miserably wasted and squandered his time, almost up to his 25th year. Maliciously advancing beyond all his peers in vanities, he proved himself a more excessive inciter of evil and a zealous imitator of foolishness… in his flamboyanrt display of vain accomplishments, wit, curiosity, practical jokes and foolish talk, songs and flowing garments.”

He “was still boiling in the sins of youthful heat” when an illness fell upon him, which lasted a long but unspecified length of time.

When he finally began to recover, Francis found to his surprise that the worldly things that had so enraptured him before brought him no pleasure whatsoever. So he decided that if his life as a dandy no longer gave him pleasure, that he would go to war and be a great and famous warrier. But in the night he had a horrible dream, that his whole room was filled with the instruments of war, swords and shields, saddles and spears. He refused to go to war, and withdrew to the countryside, where he had a long dark night of the soul, hiding out in caves and desperately praying for God’s guidance. After a long struggle, he had a powerful and transformative experience of God, and he went to sell everything he owned, and not incidentally, some things actualy owned by his father, a wealthy merchant of fine fabrics.

He gave it all away to a poor priest he met on his travels, who was living in the ruined church of San Damiano. Francis begged the priest to let him stay there, and the priest reluctantly agreed.

Francis’ father began searching for his son, and finally found him living a life of happy poverty with the old priest. His father prompty dragged Francis before the bishop, claiming that Francis had stolen a large quantity of precious fabric from him, which was actually true. He screamed at the bishop to remove all rights of inheritance from Francis, and to force him to return to his father all he had. Francis did just that with great glee. He pulled off every stich of clothing he had, not yet the brown robe, but the expremely begragged garb of a nobleman, until he was standing stark naked in front of the bishop and his astounded father. The bishop, perceiving him to be a holyman, at once took off his own ornate robes and put them on Francis. Thereafter he was his friend and protector.

One day in church Francis heard these familiar dictates from the Gospel of Matthew: that the disciples should not “possess silver of gold or money, or carry on their journey a wallet or a sack, not bread nor a staff, nor have shoes nor two tunics but that they should only preach the Kingdom of God.

Francis, according to Thomas of Celano, burst out in ecstacy “This is what I want, this is what I seek, this is what I desire with all my heart.”

Then Francis had his famous brown robes made, gave away his staff, and exchanged his leather belt for a rope. He then began gathering his brothers, and building his humble order of servants.

But although Francis truly and loving embraced Lady Poverty, as he called her, he never really lost his taste for fine things. It seems that our Francis had a taste for cooked chicken, and every once in a while he would manage to sneak some into his cell and, with great delight, eat it. But then his guilt would torture him so that he would beg one of his brothers to help him atone for his sin.

“He commanded the brother to tie a cord around his neck and drag him through the whole city, a though he were a theif, loudly crying out, “Look! See this glutton who grew fat on the flesh of chickens without your knowledge!”

Francis lived a beautiful life of giving, reaching out and ministering to lepers, anyone in need, and famously, even the birds of the air, those animals that creep upon the earth, and even the lowly earthworm.

And after a lifetime of poverty, of denying himself, of radical giving, Francis on his deathbed wanted three things: he wanted almond cookies, he wanted a satin pillow for his head, and he wanted the company of Lady Jacobi, a female devotee about whom very little has survived the sensorship of the papal decrees. But she, the cookies and the satin pillow were all there when Francis finally passed into paradise.

I take comfort in hearing these less than saintly things about Francis. Maybe he was no more a real saint that any of us, but he certainly did his best. He was only human, but he paid attention to his calling as a Christian, he read the fine print of the gosples.

There is one biblical text that I never connected with St. Fancis until I heard my daughter’s interpretation: The rich young man comes and asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus says to keep the commandments and the young man says that he has always kept them, since his youth. Jesus looks at him with love, (the guy is probably 19) and says, “One thing more- sell what you own and give the money to the poor. Then come and follow me.” The text goes on to say that the young man went away grieving, for he had many possessions

My daughter, had a good midrash for this story. She thought it was obvious that the young man went away sad, gave his possessions away, became joyful and came back to follow Jesus! Like Francis, he went through a transformation.

I believe that Jesus gives us all a forge for our transformation, which is our faith, which is our existence as the bodly of Christ. It is our own personal miracle- praying as Francis did, to hear God’s call and then acting on the answer to the question: What is God calling me to do?