The concluding verse of today’s Gospel summons a very specific memory for me. I grew up in the Episcopal Church, in the suburbs of Denver. My mom was one of the main leaders of the guitar group. In my mind I can still hear the strumming as I am sitting on the floor of our living room, four or five adults gathered ‘round singing, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
I won’t make us sing through the song. Maybe it’s one of your favorites. It isn’t one of mine. The words were fine, but the minor key of the melody just didn’t work for me. And unfortunately, the song is an ear worm. To this day, whenever this verse comes up in daily prayer or on a Sunday, I am a little kid again, listening to the guitars. I’m sorry if you go home humming the minor tune.
But then, as now, the image of a Christian Community, known for its love is striking. Even as a child I thought “what would that look like? What would it mean if in my city, in my nation, in my world, if my Christian community was known for love?”
Do people know we are Christians by our love?
In my sermon at Easter, I mentioned that our denomination is being questioned in the public square. Folks are asking, “Are Episcopalians really Christians?” The Episcopal Church has been criticized in recent days, some commentators have questioned whether we are a Christian church. And as I said at Easter, I am worried about the yardsticks we use to measure the Christian faith, I am worried about the assumptions we make about what it means to be Christian. We need to get a new yardstick.
This week, in Missouri, the stakes got higher. The questions faced in our state around religion weren’t theoretical. It wasn’t folks wondering, intellectually questioning, whether our faith measured up. No, it got real, fast.
I have been a priest for eight years now, and for eight years I have entirely avoided the topic of abortion in the pulpit. I’ve avoided it for at least one obvious reason: as a cisgender man, and as an openly gay one at that, I feel I have very little to say about what a woman should do with her body. But this week, in our state, the theological got political, and it got dangerous. This week I worried that my silence on the issue is complicit. I am responsible for the theology in this little church.
The Episcopal Church’s Stance: Nuance
The Episcopal Church is a church that asks for nuance. That’s a hard place to hold in today’s political environment. We believe there can be spiritual value in holding tension. The Episcopal Church has simultaneously held two positions on abortion: The first position is this: All abortion has a “tragic dimension.” The Episcopal Church is not “pro-abortion.” All abortion involves loss. All abortion has a tragic dimension. At the same time our church holds a second position: we have simultaneously, as a denomination said legislation isn’t the answer. Our church has taken a stance that any state or federal law, any judicial decision, which would prevent a woman from making an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy, any decision or law that would limit access to safe means to act on a woman’s decision, would be a violation of her human rights.
I should also note that our growing relationship with members of the trans community only adds nuance our stance. We are learning that there are times when someone who identifies as a man may also face choices about ending his pregnancy, and access may be even more difficult for him, for them.
Our church’s stance asks us to consider nuance, to hold tension. Our state just chose a different path. There is no room for nuance in Missouri. Complexity has been pushed aside. Our state just passed one of the least nuanced and most restrictive laws in the country.
Words from women colleagues
As I said before, as a cis white man, I want to be careful in response. Rather than speak for myself, I will to quote some women colleagues. First, Pastor Traci Blackmon, a UCC pastor a few miles north, up in Florissant and a widely respected leader in the church across our country. Pastor Traci wrote this week:
the truth is. Such oppressive laws never stop those with resources. Those with options…The truth is: Those who want abortions and have means will still get them…It is the women without access. The women who are too poor to travel. The women who are too fearful of domestic violence to run. The women with limited options and limited resources who will be most impacted by this law…Such laws never stop abortion. They stop safe access.
Laws like what passed in Missouri this week will not make abortion less frequent, will not make abortion less tragic. These laws will make abortion less safe.
Another colleague, Pastor Amy Butler, recently published her story of a late term abortion. The pregnancy years ago, after her son was born came as a surprise, but she and her husband were excited about to expect a little girl, a new addition to their family. She wrote of the routine appointment toward the end of the pregnancy when doctor started pulling colleagues in to consult over the sonogram. Finally the doctors stood around the bed and said the baby was severely developmentally compromised. She would die at birth, if not before, after a few excruciatingly painful minutes of life. And continuing the pregnancy would be dangerous for the mother.
“It’s your choice” the doctor said. My colleague had no hesitation. It was important that her child not experience unnecessary pain. As she made her choice, she said she also wanted to give her family a chance to say goodbye, to grieve. It never occurred to her that someone else, her government, might have a say in what happened. Her heart was broken. The loss was awful, but her choice was obvious to her. She finished her article like this:
If [a politician’s words this week] made you feel certain — or maybe even a little bit smug — that his position is the right one, then please consider my story, allow for another narrative and, at the very least, reject the political strategy of impugning motives without hearing real people’s stories.
Then join me in building an America where every child has what she needs, every little one has arms to hold him tight, and everybody’s story is honored for the holy humanity it reveals about each one of us.
I share the words, the stories, of my women colleagues, of fellow pastors, because the theological this week became policy, dangerous policy.
The Bible on when life begins:
As I said, I have a role to play theologically. I am worried that being silent means being complicit with a seeming Christian consensus on the question of abortion. But the church has never uniformly taught that life begins at conception. The Bible is of at least two minds about when life begins. The first is the most dominant in Scripture. Life and breath go together. Adam’s life begins when God breathes into his nostrils. Jesus “breathed his last.” Life begins with breath, ends when breath ends.
The other idea about life in Scripture makes things even more complicated. The psalms are often quoted by opponents of abortion, because God talks about knitting us in the womb. But the overall sense of life in the psalms is perhaps better expressed in the verse from Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” Before. Life, in the Bible, is more complex than chromosomes, and cells, flesh, and bone. Life begins before all that. Life continues after our body returns to ashes, dust to dust. Life in God is more beautiful and more complex than the body.
I consider myself pro-life
You should know, I do consider myself pro-life. I simply cannot identify with a pro-life politics that is only concerned with the life of the unborn. I am pro-life because I believe every child should be wanted, should know love. I am pro-life because I am anti-death penalty, I believe our state should not terminate the life of anyone, even a convicted murderer. I am pro-life because I believe our government should weigh the real human cost before choosing war. I am pro-life because I believe we should know why black women are more likely to die in childbirth, and we should pour money into researching other critical questions in women’s health that remain unanswered. I am pro-life because I believe we should look at educational outcomes, at poverty, and hunger. Life matters to God. The lives of the poor, the hungry, the oppressed matter to God. I reject the narrow definition of “pro-life” we have allowed some Christians to invent. I can be pro-life and pro-choice at the same time.
If it surprises you to hear a Christian pastor say you can be pro-life and pro-choice at the same time, well, I offer Peter’s story today from the book of Acts.
Peter tells the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem how he chose to eat with Gentile Christians. In Joppa, he had a revelation. God commanded him to eat food that a Jew, someone keeping kosher, would never eat. God said to Peter, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” Peter then goes to the home of Gentiles, people outside the Covenant. He follows the Spirit there, and he sees God breaking down the categories he had inherited. He sees the Spirit descending on unexpected folk. Peter realizes this mission of God’s is going to be a lot more inclusive than he ever imagined. This church is going to be a lot more diverse than he ever thought. This Jesus Movement is going to challenge his categories, his assumptions, his politics. This faith is going to be a lot more embracing and a lot more complicated than he imagined.
Our faith asks us to hold together complex positions, to hold more nuance than our politics often allow. Our faith asks us to listen to the stories of people our society has counted out, to listen for the ways God has been acting especially among those who have been cast aside, ignored, and silenced. Our faith asks us to honor life in all its forms, and to protect life from birth to death with dignity.
Are we Christian? Are we known for our Love?
I end this sermon where I begin, wondering how we measure our faith today, how do we measure our church, how do we measure whether or not we are Christian?
Jesus tells us pretty plainly. They will know you are my disciples, by your love, (by your love). I still wonder what that would look like. I’ve caught glimpses. When we’ve built community down at classic coin, paid for folks’ washers and dryers at Laundry Love, I’ve caught glimpses. I’ve seen folks catch a glimpse of what it means to be Christian when they are welcomed to a community in El Salvador, when they’ve been fed a generous meal by families who struggle to put food on their own tables each night. I’ve caught glimpses in Salvadoran faces, surprised to be visited by a group from North America, to meet a church community from the States that knows what it is to fear and work against gun violence. I’ve caught glimpses in the tears of folks surprised to see Christians marching in the LGBTQ+ Pride parade. I have had moments when I believe I saw what it would mean to be a religious movement known for love, for reckless love, for unconditional Christ-like love.
They will know you are my disciples by your love. I’ve seen it, just a few moments at a time. I hope to see more.
You can only love who you listen to.
The last thing I will say is this. I know one thing about love. You can only love people you listen to. Think about it. In the midst of our frightening times, facing dangerous politics, you can only love the people you listen to. What would it mean to be a Christian Church? What would it mean to be known for our love? If we want an answer, we better keep listening.