About a year ago I saw a post on Facebook which said something like “Live Your Life in Such a Way the Westboro Baptist Church will Picket Your Funeral,” which I thought was pretty great so I shared it on my timeline.
For those of you not familiar with the Westboro Baptist Church, it is a family church whose primary message seems to be that God hates all LGBTQI persons and Muslims, as well as those who don’t hate them. It claims actions such 9/11, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, as well as the Boston Marathon bombing are a result of God’s wrath.
They spread their message of homophobia and hate primarily by picketing the funerals of service members who have died in the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, or victims of violence or natural disasters, as well churches, universities and other high profile public events such as the Emmy’s. They even picketed here many years ago. I will not repeat what their signs say verbatim because they’re so offensive but generally they’re all about who they say God hates.
Anyway, the response, as you might expect from people who are my “friends,” on Facebook was pretty enthusiastic—we all want to live our lives that way! And for what it’s worth, I still do.
While personally I have never been in the presence of the Westboro Baptist Church picketing some event, I have been in similar situations. We experience it every year when the Cathedral marches in the Pride Parade when we pass the area set aside for protesters. The fact we are a church earns us particularly enthusiastic hostility.
But perhaps the most heartbreaking time I witnessed this kind of hate was on May 15, 2010 at the consecration service of Mary Glasspool and Diane Bruce as Bishops Suffragan in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Mary Glasspool is lesbian and her election was opposed by conservative elements both inside, as well as outside the church.
On the day of the service, as expected there were picketers outside the Long Beach Convention Center where it was held, with the usual offensive signs.
However, after the service got underway and all the clergy had processed in along with Mary Glasspool, Diane Bruce, and Jon Bruno, the Diocesan Bishop of Los Angeles, a young boy, maybe around 7 years of age, stood up and started yelling homophobic slurs aimed at Mary. He, and a man, presumably his father, were quickly removed from the Convention Hall, and while the disruption ultimately did not dampen the spirits of those present, it did leave a sad, lasting impression.
Last summer when Bishop Glasspool was with us at the Cathedral during Pride weekend, I had a chance to talk to her about it briefly. When the boy first started shouting, she said she was riveted and sad—this was supposed to be a happy day. And at the same time, she also felt she had the support of all around her. But then she just wanted to cry out—how could someone teach this kind of hate to a young child? That was the abomination.
That event, along with my general feelings, in all honesty, of enmity towards those who spread any message of hate, but certainly of homophobia, has haunted me over the last week or so as I have been thinking about my sermon and the Gospel reading from John. How am I to reconcile my thoughts and feelings with Jesus’ words?
“I ask only not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me . . . and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
I don’t want to be “one” with these people. In fact I want to do everything I can to contradict their message, to contradict them—so they will picket my funeral. The image of Jesus which emerges from the Gospels seems very clear: following him has nothing to do with hate and absolutely everything to do with love.
How are we to be “one” with people who profess to be Christian and yet preach a message of hate?
Now I wish I could tell you I have a simple answer to this question but I don’t. It’s easy enough to say they’re not really Christian, which they certainly say about us, but I’m not going to go there. As much as I would like to, it is not for me to determine who is a real Christian and who isn’t.
Rather, it seems like the real work for us is to be as authentically Christian as we can, given our understanding and let our actions show the world a different way of being, one based in the unconditional, deep love God has for all people.
But perhaps God’s love is as good a starting point as any for how we are one. The Rev. Dr. David Lose, a professor at Luther Seminary, wrote the following about this particular passage from John:
He prays for his disciples. He senses their anxiety, confusion, and fear, and so he prays for them . . . And as he does, and whether or not they understand everything he says, he tells them that they do not have to do everything or even understand everything. He tells them that he is there to support them, that they are not alone, and that they are valued and loved.
It’s a powerful moment. And one of the amazing things about this passage is that Jesus doesn’t do this only for them, but also for us. As Jesus prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word…” And that includes us! We are the latest in a long line of persons who have been inspired and encouraged to believe because of the words and lives of those original disciples.
And what does Jesus pray for? “That they may be one.” That we may be one – one with each other, one with Jesus and the Father, one with ourselves. And that being one, we may have peace.
But having peace is not the same thing as passively standing by in the face of injustice, hate, homophobia, racism, sexism, or any of the long list of terrible things human beings do to each other. In fact, when we look at Jesus’ actions in the face of such things, it appears we are called to do just the opposite. He certainly wasn’t one to remain silent when something needed to be said or done.
And at the same time, we are called to recognize God love for all people. Jesus prays for us all, even today, and with God’s help, for it is the only way we can do this, we are to remain open to the movement of the Spirit, even when it confounds us. Which it often will. Following Jesus is not about easy answers but rather living our lives with love, hope, and courage.
So what can this look like in real life? One story in particular repeatedly came back to me over the week. Back in 2008 prior to the passage of Proposition 8, Scott Richardson, our previous dean met with Jim Garlow, head pastor of Skyline Church, and Miles McPherson, head pastor of The Rock Church. Both men were in the forefront of the Yes on 8 campaign and have been, to put it mildly, unsupportive of gay rights.
Scott’s reason for meeting with them was not in the hope he could somehow change their minds, but rather to talk about the nature of the rhetoric being used on both sides of the campaign, and as religious leaders perhaps they could help tone it down, keep it respectful.
And as expected, no minds were changed, but at least the meeting itself was respectful. At some point during the conversation Jim shared his wife Carol was very sick with cancer and the doctors had basically run out of options.
Scott told Jim he would not only pray for Carol himself but the people of the Cathedral would pray for her as well. And we have ever since and will today as we mourn her death with the Garlow family. Grief is something all people share.
Frankly, most of the time Jesus’ hopes and expectations for us, are quite a bit higher than our hopes and expectations for ourselves. But today we are reminded not to let the actions or limitations of others, or our own actions or limitations, stop us from striving to follow him. We are reminded we are one because Jesus loves and prays for us all. And we are invited to deeply take in his love and prayer for us, and then allow them to take us to places we can’t even begin to imagine, even in our hearts.
The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas
12 April 2013