Rise. Anoint. Share.
Homily for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (June 26, 2016)
preached at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
by the Rev. Neil Elliott, Ph.D.
In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful.
Austin texted me late in the evening, two weeks ago. “Dad,” he wrote, “I’m too upset to sleep.” I saw that it was after three in the morning in Oxford, England. I knew what was upsetting him. I pushed the video chat button and we talked for two hours. He’d spent the day, as many of us did here, watching the news unfold of a bloody massacre in a gay-friendly nightclub in Orlando, Florida. And he’d spent the evening, as he spent every Sunday evening, in a gay-friendly pub in his neighborhood in Oxford. “It’s the one place I can go on the weekend to relax,” he said, “and not have to measure my words and my gestures and wonder how much I can be myself with the people around me.”
Thirteen years ago, in 2003, Austin and Jeremy had spent their school year in California, with their mother, and come to Minnesota to spend their summer with Mary Ellen and me. Austin had been a volunteer at our church’s General Convention in Minneapolis—the historic meeting when we approved the consecration of Gene Robinson as our church’s first bishop who was in an openly gay relationship. Austin came home the day of the vote, impressed with our church. But he was also shaken by the protesters he’d run into outside the convention center; loud, angry men screaming, “God Hates Fags!” and “Abomination!” and holding signs smothered with Scriptures.
I was a little slow to catch on. Early the next morning, I looked out the window to see Austin coming back from a long, pensive walk. I opened the door and invited him in. I didn’t bother to pour coffee. I told him that as Episcopalians, as Christians, Mary Ellen and I were very much on the side of the welcoming, open church that he had just witnessed—and I said that as a father, I wanted him to know that if he or Jeremy were gay, we wouldn’t love them any differently.
“That’s good,” he said with a smile, “because I am.”
A sort of electric charge ran between us and we embraced for a long time.
I was wrong. Two years later, I came downstairs to hear Jeremy telling Mary Ellen that he, too, was gay. Over the years, Mary Ellen and I pretty much naturally loved both our sons more and more: but our love did change. We realized we were loving gay sons and would have to be clearly and publicly on their side in ways we hadn’t anticipated. We weren’t just a liberal family who accepted gays, we were a gay family. What to some other people were just political issues or theological debate points were for us an intimate fabric of simple, direct affection and loyalty.
Austin said that his British friends in that Oxford pub had asked him, incredulously, “what is wrong with your country?” He said he was scared; not afraid of imminent danger—yes, there have been terrorist attacks in London, but relatively few and far between—but afraid, and angry, that, he said, “I don’t feel like the United States is home anymore.”
Europe “feels like home,” Austin said. Not just because Martin is there. Martin is from Germany; they met in China, and they’ve spent much of their four years “together” living on different continents. Now they’re both in the British Isles and are spending as much time as they can together—at family events in Konstanz, weekends in Paris, trips to Rome and Greece.
“Europe feels like home,” Austin said, “because it’s safe. Sure, there’s violence, terrorist attacks, heightened security. But the whole continent has figured guns out. It’s like living in the civilized world. But it’s not a society where an angry, repressed man on a terrorist watch list can just go buy an assault rifle over the weekend and massacre a crowd full of people because they’re like me. It’s not a society that lets that happen again and again and again.”
I felt that peculiar parental guilt we feel when it seems we’ve failed to keep our children safe. Austin talked, for the first time, about coming out to us years after he’d known that he was gay. It wasn’t that he was afraid of our reaction—he knew we loved him—but he was overwhelmed with the realization of the burden he was taking on, about finding his way in a society so awash in vitriolic hatred of people like him. Political and religious leaders alike defamed GLBT people and stoked fear and anger against them, just as he was trying to figure out who he was and how he felt. The Episcopal Church that had been his home was trying so hard to be polite in debates over whether his very nature was a sign of God’s displeasure.
Even today, in many parts of this country, people like my sons are insulted as a class; their rights are disrespected.
A California pastor tells his congregation that he wishes the Orlando murderer had been able to “finish the job,” killing more of the “sodomites” and “pedophiles” in that club. That’s not the sort of confusion that a calm discussion of human sexuality can clear up. That’s the sort of rank hate speech that would likely inspire FBI investigations and an arrest for terror recruitment if it came from a Muslim pulpit. That church—I looked it up—is thirteen minutes away from the gay-friendly clubs in Sacramento, near where Austin spent six years studying for his Ph.D.
The Republican leadership in Congress responded to the Orlando massacre by dismissing the gun control issue as liberal grandstanding; they called it a political distraction from the real danger of Muslims. Oh: and they blocked a vote to end employment discrimination against GLBT persons.¹
I’m not talking about this because I want to vent, although I do have strong feelings around these issues. Nor am I “politicizing” an Episcopal pulpit: I’m addressing the teaching of our church. In repeated General Conventions our church has voted overwhelmingly to urge action around the scourge of gun violence. Our House of Bishops have unanimously declared, “We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others.” Our diocese is sharing information and resources in order to equip us to work, pray, and advocate for sensible changes to our gun laws. In between services today, you are invited to meet with some of us in the Fireside Room to discuss what we might do as a congregation in collaboration with others.
It’s a daunting challenge. Unless you have been living under a rock, you know the landscape that has prevailed for decades. Although a strong majority of Americans in every poll clearly favor stronger gun restrictions—including a majority of gun owners and even a majority of NRA members—their efforts are constantly stymied by legislators and gun-rights advocates who repeat the same talking points:
- Gun laws don’t really prevent gun deaths.
- Our laws are already restrictive enough, they’re just not enforced—and that’s only the
- The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
- Only our Second Amendment right stands between us and imminent tyranny.
- The real danger are the Muslims: they have introduced hate into our society. Gun control is just a liberal distraction from that threat.
The last point rings hollow to many members of the GLBT community who know just how vicious homegrown hate can be. My son Jeremy went to the Los Angeles Pride festival last weekend —where an Indiana man was also heading with a car full of automatic rifles, high-capacity magazines, and explosive components; initial reports were that he meant to “harm Gay Pride.” But this one didn’t claim allegiance to ISIS; he was just another white right-wing conspiracy enthusiast driving around with a deadly arsenal in his back seat.²
But all those points are myths. By that I mean that some Americans may ardently believe them, but they have been factually refuted by history and actual statistics. Of course, even basic gathering, sharing, and reporting on gun-related crimes across the country is prohibited by legislation sponsored by what appears to be an omnipotent and irresistible gun manufacturers’ lobby. That makes even the most moderate, sensible gun control measures seem impossible. Some people see here the systematic bribery of our elected officials by the gun lobby, but I think it’s something more. We Americans have a visceral bond with our guns; you see it in our movies. We need guns to be American. We need them not just to feel safe; we need them to feel invincible. You know the line: “you can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.” That fanatical devotion seems to eclipse concern for the safety of wives or girlfriends or children, to judge by the frequency by which law enforcement officers must pry weapons from the cold, dead hands of men who have killed themselves after killing members of their own family.. (Abused women are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser owns a gun.)³
Austin said that Europeans view U.S. society as sick about guns. Our bishops use a different word, a theological word that I think is apt: idolatry. ‘Avodah zarah is the Hebrew phrase: “false worship,” worship directed at what isn’t God, imagining that it loves us and will keep us safe.
In the last few weeks we’ve been hearing the bizarre story of the prophet Elijah. It’s a bewildering mix of history and legend, horrific violence and edifying tale, presented as the story of people of God struggling against an idolatrous society. I want to focus on Elijah’s portrayal as a prophet in crisis, a prophet suffering a failure of nerve.
We heard several weeks ago about that great liturgical showdown on Mount Carmel—Elijah versus hundreds of prophets of Baal. The Lord vindicated Elijah, and we can imagine Elijah thinking, there. Surely that will settle things.
But it didn’t. The regime continued, even more aggressively: now Elijah was marked for death. He was hiding out in a cave in the desert, without food or water, and he gave up. He cried out to God: I’m all alone. I can’t win. Just let me die.
I want us to notice God’s response (I paraphrase):
First: You’re not alone. There are thousands of people who feel the way you do. Get connected.
Second: Yes, the regime is hostile to you. Change it. Go anoint new kings. Now, we don’t hear just how Elijah went about that or what the results were; and of course,
we have to figure out what that means for us. We live in a Constitutional democracy, after all, where people don’t go around anointing leaders. —Except for televangelists like Kenneth Copeland, who announced weeks ago that God had anointed Ted Cruz to be our president, but last week endorsed Donald Trump for president, because God changed — it’s complicated.
Third, God says to Elijah: If you’re tired, share the burden. We hear of Elisha, Elijah’s younger protégé, following him around, wanting to take responsibility, and Elijah puts him off: You can’t handle the prophecy. Go home to your parents. But Elisha goes home, bids his parents farewell, takes his farm equipment and livestock and makes a great feast for his community, and leaves home behind. He comes back to Elijah saying, “I’m ready. Share your power with me.”
And things begin to change.
We are called to be a prophetic church, an apostolic church—one “sent” to do God’s work in the world. We may feel tempted, like Elijah, to collapse in a familiar despair. After decades of this struggle, we’ve grown used to helplessness. It’s tempting to shrug at the complexity of that work and despair over the inevitability of the world as it is.
But God doesn’t give Elijah that option. Jesus, in today’s Gospel, doesn’t give his followers that option.
Idolatry isn’t just worshiping things that are not God. It’s also living in the world as if we had no hope in God, as if the way things are was simply inevitable, irresistible, all that there is. Living as if gun violence were just a part of nature that we were powerless to affect is a kind of idolatry. And one of the many things on which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam agree is that idolatry is not permitted us.
Let’s at least talk about it.
And may we be caught up and empowered in the work of the Spirit in our world.
¹ Erica Warner, “Congress Stalemated on Guns Despite Orlando Nightclub Shooting, Senate Filibuster,” Los Angeles Daily News, June 16, 2016: http://www.dailynews.com/government-and-politics/20160616/congressstalemated-on-guns-despite-orlando-nightclub-shooting-senate-filibuster; Abigail Tracy, “Days After Orlando Attack, House G.O.P. Blocks Vote on Gay-Rights Amendment: So Much for Solidarity,” Vanity Fair June 15, 2016: http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/06/house-gop-blocks-vote-lgbt-rights-amendment.
³ Jacquelyn C. Campbell et al., “Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results from a Multisite Case Control Study,” 93 Am. J. Pub. Health 1089, 1092 (July 2003).