Parish Life Conference Sermon

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Saturday, June 28, 2008

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Christ is in our midst!

It will take great wisdom for the Church to address the issues of our times.  Every age presents both dilemma and opportunity.  Being an optimist I rather see these days as an opportunity to dig deep into our spiritual tradition, to reexamine and reaffirm what we believe to be true and to find new ways to minister to our suffering world.  I speak to you from one of the epicenters of the controversy over marriage.  Right across the street from St. Mary’s is Cambridge City Hall where I believe the first same sex marriages were legally recognized.  On CNN that night I saw my church framing the background of those proceedings.  It was a strange moment for me. The only difference between the dilemmas and opportunities that faced our fathers in the faith and us is that this is our time!  This is our moment!  Will we be able to rise to the occasion and bring peace and healing and clarity to the world in which we live?

One thing I do not believe is that we need to be afraid.  If Christ is in our midst, then we have nothing to fear.  We do not need to circle our wagons and drag out the ammunition.  We must not go into self-defense mode!  That will undermine our efforts to preach the Gospel like nothing else.  If we are unwilling to listen and to love, then no one will listen to us.  We need to step back and give ourselves some space to think deeply about what we are facing.  This spells the difference between reaction and response. What we need is to respond thoughtfully.

What are we afraid of?  That the state will decide to throw us into prison for not marrying same-sex couples? It wouldn’t be the first time the Church has faced such threats. Jesus warned us that we would be persecuted as He was.  So be it, if it really comes to that for he also said, “Be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.” Let’s have faith in He who is and always will be and do not fear anyone or anything as we preach His Gospel.  If martyrdom comes to us, well, we can either go to the lion’s singing as the early martyrs did, “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it,” or we can go as cowards.  Still I do not think martyrdom will come over the issue of marriage like many alarmists do.

Let’s choose how we will proceed carefully in this age.  The renowned psychologist Viktor Frankl was the only one of his family to survive the Nazi concentration camps.  Here is a lesson he learned that might also help us.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked from hut to hut comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man, but one thing: the last human freedom – to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  We are free to choose our own way. We should not allow anyone else to set our agenda for us.

An instruction often given to those who practice the spiritual life is to never be concerned about the consequences of one’s actions.  We are called to do what is right, to love justice and to walk humbly before the Lord.  The results are not in our hands they are in God’s.  We followers of Christ must be like those angelic prisoners moving from person to person with only one thought in mind:  how can I help?  Let us never think that we can sacrifice the love of neighbor and at the same time preach the Gospel.

Here is an example of abandoning love to preach the Gospel.  I had a friend in high school in my little East Tennessee home town whose father was an alcoholic.  A fine man in every other way, but addicted to alcohol.  One day he went in desperation to the office the pastor of our Southern Baptist church.  When he knocked on the door and the door opened the man fell to his knees and begged the pastor for help.  Here is the response he received:  “Go away! We do not want your kind around here!”

Two things are clear and self-evident.  The first is that we must never be guilty of treating another human being in such a manner.  The second is that we cannot change our understanding of marriage.  It is what it is for a variety of reasons, theological and anthropological.  Anything other than a sacramental marriage between one man and one woman is simply, for us, not a marriage. It may be something else, but it is not a marriage.  We do not mean this to be mean-spirited at all or to deny anyone their civil rights.  We are not talking about civil rights although at some point we probably should consider that side of the issue.  We are talking about sacramental marriage.  There is no reason to say what we believe in a harsh or offensive way.  We can and must speak truth in love.  If we do not, our hearers will not get the message.  All they will hear is our anger and defensiveness.

The question at hand, for me, is one of pastoral care and not of legislation, or Supreme Court decisions or legal briefs before district courts.  The rubber meets the road in the confessional and in my office when a person comes to me for advice and counsel.  The Kingdom of God is not of this world.  I do not need the state to give its permission for me to preach the Gospel, to counsel or give advice in accordance with the beliefs of our Church.  

The Church is a hospital for the sick, the lonely and the dispossessed.  The Lord came to save sinners not the righteous.  He ate with tax collectors and lepers, discussed the depths of theology with an adulterous Samaritan woman who was a sexual addict, broke the laws of the Sabbath regularly to heal and always exalted those of the lowest degree.  Are we not called to do the same?  His only harsh words were saved for hypocrites and corrupt religious leaders of his day.

The question of pastoral care for homosexuals is being addressed by priests all over this country.  My conversation with many of them across jurisdictional lines has confirmed for me the path of compassion.  I have been amazed at the congruity of opinion, stunned by the degree of agreement in pastoral practice.  A pattern of practice is emerging both uncompromising to the faith and compassionate at the same time. All who seek to follow Christ are welcome.  All who desire to live a holy life have a home in our Church.  Our faith is in the Lord who heals and transforms all who enter into communion with him, but the paths are mysterious and personal.  Christ meets everyone where they are.  We might want to pay attention to these words from the American sage George Washington Carver who said, “If you love something enough, it will reveal its secrets.

Unconditional love is the way to facilitate transformation.  If confession is the way to healing, then we must not be afraid to hear and acknowledge what is confessed.  The Church must be the place where people are unafraid to be completely honest about the struggles of their life in Christ.

I had a conversation with Fr. Thomas Hopko years ago when he was visiting our parish.  I asked him how he dealt with the issue of gays in the Church.  He told me a story.  He had a young man in his parish who was gay and who had a partner who was not Orthodox.  One day the partner came to his office and said something like, “I have come to love the Orthodox Church and would like to join it, but the problem is I am gay, I believe God made me that way and I cannot change.”  Fr. Hopko replied, “Tell me, what do you believe about Jesus Christ?”  The young man was taken aback.  “Father, you did not hear me. I said that I am gay, God made me that way and I cannot change.”  Father Hopko replied, “I heard you, but what I want to know is what do you believe about Jesus Christ?”  

We are responsible to bring people to Christ. It is the Lord who transforms and heals.  Do we not believe that anymore? Have we no faith?  The question always must be for everyone who comes to us, “What do you believe about Jesus Christ?”  

In my limited experience I have met gay people who are extremely pious and knowledgeable about the Faith.  In spite of the Church’s clear stance on homosexuality and same-sex marriage they remain steadfast believers.  And what is more, some of them have come to willingly embrace lives of absolute chastity in a way of life most heterosexual single people these days would be loathe to accept.  There is little difference between their lives and that of monastics in this regard and they do it for the love of Christ and His Church.  I know some of them personally and am inspired by the example of their faith.  We must encourage and embrace such courageous souls.

As Fr. Timothy put it yesterday morning so beautifully, whatever we say let’s say it well – whatever we do let’s do it well and I add this, let’s do it out of love.  Let us abandon fear and embrace compassion.

The Orthodox mystics have a sacred perspective on life that can light the way for us.  It is the Christian perspective on the sanctity of life itself and that of every human being.  All are made in the image of God, all are truly irreplaceable and worthy of respect and honor.  It is the perspective that led the Holy Fathers to proclaim from their experience, “To the pure all things are pure.”

The great Western monk and mystic, Thomas Merton, exemplifies this perspective well in two quotes I offer you this evening.  The first is a direct quote, the second a paraphrase.  The first is:

The saints are what they are not because their
sanctity makes them admirable to others, but
because the gift of sainthood makes it possible
for them to admire everybody else.

Here is my paraphrase of the second quote. I apologize that I could not find the original as I wrote this sermon.  It goes something like this, “If we could see people as God does, as He made them, I guess the only problem that would remain is that we would have a tendency to fall down and worship one another.”  It seems to me that we might want to choose this attitude as we attempt to minister to the world since we are free and always will be to choose our own path.