A sermon by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson on October 23, 2022
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN
A forewarning before I begin. This morning’s sermon discusses the issue of abortion. Because I know this difficult topic can raise intense feelings and trigger memories of past experiences and pain, I felt it was important to name it at the outset.
This year’s MEA weekend started off with a bit of unexpected drama. The place we rented with some friends out in Wisconsin on the South Shore has a beautiful wooded property and a long stretch of sandy beach on the Lake. We arrived before our friends and while Erin and I unpacked, the boys went down to explore the sand spit spanning the mouth of a small creek at the edge of Lake Superior. The stream there often dredges up enough silt and sand to make a sandbar, which dams up the creek behind, leaving only a trickle of a stream to flow into the lake, and a cattail filled marsh on the other side. Jude recalled later that he kicked at the edge of the small freshet, only inches wide, to see if he could open up the channel a little to let more water from the marsh into the lake. With just a few digs of his shoe the stream widened quickly to a rushing torrent. As water squeezed through the small gap the sand quickly eroded away. In mere seconds a roaring white water filled chasm stretched nearly 20 feet between Jude and his brother Simon. There appeared to be no way back across to the cabin without getting very wet, and potentially sucked out into the lake. While we were ultimately able to rescue poor Jude in a process that left both he and myself quite wet, cold, and dripping as our friends pulled up to the cabin, the experience was, to say the least, unnerving for all involved. How quickly that gap had widened, and how difficult it seemed to be able to span the distance.
It was this wide gulf that came back to me as I wrote the sermon for this morning’s gospel from Luke. In it, Jesus is telling another parable. He says,
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”
The story is, Jesus tells us, about humility and justification, with a simple moral – All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. Yet, what strikes me most about this story, is not the moral itself, which, we can all agree is quite on the nose, but, rather, the gap, both physical and spiritual, between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Jesus says, “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven.” The proximics of their supposed moral and spiritual difference is underscored by how far apart they stand – the Pharisee up close and almost assured of his uprightness. The tax collector unwilling to come forward, hesitating in the background. And, I can’t shake the image of the literal chasm between them, the distance that might seem impossible to bridge.
It is perhaps ironic, that the distance between them is also doubly reinforced by the gospel itself. Scholars tell us Luke was fond of using tax collectors, Samaritans, and other outsiders and sinners over and against supposed insiders, Priests and Pharisees and the faithful leaders of God’s chosen people, as a way of illustrating how Jesus’ radical message would be lost on the insiders and appreciated and appropriated by the outsiders. Sadly, this kind of emphasis reinforces deep chasms between Christians and Jews that come down to us even to this day as the underpinnings for some of the worst kinds of antisemitism and hatred. While the Pharisees in particular are singled out in the gospel as an example of religious hypocrisy and faithlessness, historians in antiquity like Josephus tell us that the Pharisees were actually quite faithful, that they supported widows and orphans, were supporters of the least, and most concerned about the outcast and downtrodden. And, yet, somehow this morning’s gospel would paint a caricature of a Pharisee that through the warped bigotry of religious, racial, and cultural animus over the millennia, serves first to further distance we Christians from our Jewish siblings.¹
This impulse to “other” one another, across all the divides of race, class, religion, gender, sexuality, and politics continues to this present moment. How often, in this day and age do we and our leaders speak in words familiar to this gospel – “God I thank you that I am not like those [fill in the blank] people…”? In our hearts and minds and with our words we are quick to turn someone whose life and story and experience are not our own into a moral reprobate, a sinner, evil and unworthy of our empathy and care. Nowhere is this more evident than around the issue of abortion and reproductive rights. While we are all familiar with the ways this issue is discussed by politicians and pundits, in the false binaries that so often pervade our collective discourse, the reality is that abortion is an incredibly complex issue, an issue rife with stigma and pain. Nearly 1 in 4 women, non-binary individuals, trans men, and others will have an abortion, and while some will experience this as a relief, even liberating, many will also experience feelings of grief and loss. Our own Episcopal Church, which has maintained “unequivocal opposition to any legislation…which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decisions [about the termination of pregnancy] and to act upon them.” since 1967, well before Roe v. Wade, also acknowledges that the loss of a pregnancy either by miscarriage or abortion, also carries a “tragic dimension.”² Because of this, even in a church that supports choice, we have often been reluctant to discuss abortion.
The truth is, stigmas surrounding abortion touch all sides of the debate. In her foreword to the Reverend Katey Zeh’s recent book A Complicated Choice: Making Space for Grief and Healing in the Pro-Choice Movement, Alexis McGill Johnson, President of Planned Parenthood writes
“Because stigma is one of the most powerful tools of oppression- it operates invisibly. It creates its own pathways into our minds and becomes difficult to overcome…And because stigma is so pervasive, it’s not just perpetuated by [the opponents of abortion]. When we shy away from the more complicated and nuanced side of abortion stories…we isolate one another. Even our most vocal supporters have internalized false narratives about abortion, race, gender and class… To unlearn these stereotypes, accumulated over a lifetime of exposure, takes real work.”³
One of the reasons the Episcopal Church has long supported legal access to abortion and the reproductive rights of women, trans, and non-binary folk, is that we recognize the need to resist oppression in all its forms and to create a world where all bodies are safe, cared for, and loved. And, as Johnson suggests, getting there will require us to listen to each other’s stories. It isn’t lost on me that I am a straight, cis-gendered, white man, talking to you this morning from my pulpit and out of my privilege about the issue of abortion. While my ministry has often intersected with individuals making these difficult choices as well as facing the pain of reproductive loss, I recognize that I come to you with a significant gap in life experience and my own attendant issues of bias and ignorance around reproductive rights. I know that I am not subject to the same fears and insecurities that women, trans folks, non-binary folks, queer and persons of color have had to face about their own bodies and lives. While I am, as our church teaches, unequivocally opposed to those measures that would limit reproductive rights and access to healthcare, as well as unequivocally supportive of the women, non-binary, and trans folks whose lives these things most affect, I recognize that vocal support and statements of the same will are not on their own enough to solve these issues or heal the divides in our world. Yes, I should speak up and vote and make statements and the like. And, as Johnson suggests, I am also trying to listen. You may have noticed that the women of the church have been anyone who has or has had a uterus to gather each month since the recent Dobbs decision to share their stories, and to support one another in the struggle to understand what to do in the face of the opposition nationally and now state by state to the right to choose. Those stories, I am told, have been, as we might expect, complex and often painful, and one of the clear outcomes I am hearing is a desire for us, collectively, as a church, to stand with them, to support women, trans, and non-binary folks.
I would encourage you to do the same. Vote, speak up, take action. But, more than all of this listen – listen to the stories and voices of those whose lives the issue of abortion most impacts. Hold space for and even celebrate difference and multiplicity. Acknowledge your own bias and recognize that not everyone is where you are – not everyone has had the same experiences, read the same things, believes the same things. We can be unequivocally and faithfully committed to a cause while also learning to hold space and make room for one another across all the divides. Listen to each other, as our gospel asks today, with humility. And, most importantly, as Jesus taught, love one another. As we listen to and discuss with one another, and as we seek to challenge oppression, we must do so with great love – as Sonya Renee Taylor writes in her profound book The Body Is Not An Apology, “the desire for a world free of body terrorism” (that is oppression against all kinds of bodies), “is a desire born out of love.”⁴ Ultimately, just as Jesus taught and modeled in his life, death, and resurrection, it is love that will heal the chasms and divides in our world.
Working Preacher for October 23, 2022 by Francisco Garcia, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-3/commentary-on-luke-189-14-5
- Summary of Episcopal Church position on abortion, https://www.episcopalchurch.org/ogr/summary-of-general-convention-resolutions-on-abortion-and-womens-reproductive-health/
- Zeh, Katey. A Complicated Choice: Making Space for Grief and Healing in the Pro-Choice Movement, Broadleaf Books, 2022
- Taylor, Sonya Renee. The Body Is Not An Apology Second Edition: The Power of Radical Self-Love, Berrett-Koehler, 2021