The Scandal of It All


A Sermon for St. Aelred's Day, January 12, 1999
St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, Birmingham, AL
by The Rev. James A. Creasy    creasyja@mindspring.com
Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Opelika, Alabama

 

There is an old theological Maxim referred to as "The Scandal of the Particular." It is best illustrated by the following story.

It seems there was a small town preacher in the Pacific NW who had to confront a particular unethical practice in his community.  If you recall, the principle industry of the Pacific NW was for many years Logging; and that is how most of his parishioners earned a living.  You may not know, though, how the operation was carried out in the early years of this century when our story takes place.  Trees would be cut dawn, placed in a river, and allowed to drift to the sawmill downstream.  Now there wasn't much supervision of the logs as they traveled down the river, so the way loggers kept up with their logs was to brand them on the end with their own personal  mark.  This way when a log arrived at the sawmill their account could be credited accordingly.

Now it came to our preacher's attention that some of his parishioners had discovered an easy way to increase their profits.  some loggers would drag logs out of the river somewhere between the logging site and the sawmill, saw the brand off the log  and, then put their own brand on the log.  When our preacher friend got wind of this practice he felt compelled to address it in a sermon. He decided the best approach would be to remind folks of the Ten Commandments.  After the sermon, on the way out of church, everyone told him what a fine sermon it was, that he truly was inspired.  Well this pleased him to no end, but as the  weeks passed he discovered that the practice of cutting off the ends of the logs was continuing.  He realized that he hadn't been specific enough in his sermon, so he decided to be more direct.  The following Sunday he chose as his text the eighth commandment, "You shall not steal."

Again the congregation reacted favorably to his fine sermon, and they told him so on the way out of church.  But again no one took what he said very seriously, and the theft of the logs continued. So realized he was going to have to stop beating around the bush and call a spade a spade.  The resulting sermon was entitled "Thou shalt not cut off the end of thy neighbors log."

Not long after that our the preacher found himself looking for another job.

This principle operative in this story is as true in the positive as it is in the negative.

***

Jesus said, "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.  I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." (John 15:9-14)

Preaching on the text of God's love for his people and declaring that Jesus was sent among us as an example of God's love is the type of preaching that appeals to everyone, and sermons on this topic are always well received.  When we talk about the principle of God loving everybody, and everybody loving everybody else,  no one leaves church saying,  "I disagree with you preacher." No!  People go away happy and contented.

But look at the world,  Look at this nation, look at our community!  Are people living out this fine idea in their lives?

The fact is,  the place I learned the most about ill-will and back-biting was in the church.  Not that it is the only place these vices exists.  But what I am saying, though, is that the Gospel of Love is preached better than it is practiced (my self included).  Having failed to see any results from my last sermon on, "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love!" I figure it is time to get a little more specific --  Like the preacher who's sermon on the 10 commandments had to get more specific.

In one of the Gospel passages appointed for St. Aelred's day we read "Go and bear fruit, fruit that will last...."(John 15:16-17)   There's also an alternative Gospel reading from Mark where we hear Jesus summary of the law, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;  you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:29-31)

These do get a little more specific I suppose, and preaching on them would be comparable to the old preachers: "Thou shalt not steal" sermon.

In a day and age when we are very much aware of hatred and violence, when hate filled people attack a black man and drag him to his death behind their peck-up truck, as was the case with James Byrd in Texas;   Or in similar fashion, our little gay brother, Matthew Shepard, was strung up on a Wyoming rail fence like a scare crow, beaten, and left to die in the cold freezing weather; reminding ourselves and the world that Jesus said,  "Love your neighbor as yourself" is a very important thing to do  !

All the major religions of the world have been proclaiming this message in one from or another for thousands of years.  But does the world get it?  I'm afraid not!  Not even the church gets it's own message.

In the same document that the Lambeth Conference in its "Report on Human Sexuality" said to its gay members, "We wish to assure them they are loved by God, and that all baptized, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ.  We call upon the Church and all its members to work to end any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and to oppose homophobia,"  it denies to them several of the basic membership rights that straight members take for granted (specifically ceremonies for the sanctioning of   their intimate relationships and ordination).  The document goes into significant detail regarding  heterosexual relationships and speaks of how important it is to society that these relationships be supported.  But the only word of advise given to homosexuals is "Celibacy."

It should be noted how defensive the Religious Right became after the murder of Matthew Shepard, as it tried to explain that it's national ad campaign had nothing to do with fueling the prejudice that homosexuals are "evil" and that the world would be better off without them."

It seems to me that if we believe "all baptized, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ," then we ought to be offering positive ways of being supportive of our gay members - just as we are of our heterosexual members.

It is time to get specific, particularly with regard to our gay members whom we claim to accept on an equal basis.

***

Now, some may think this is a new or novel idea; but it isn't!  And this is where St. Aelred, whose feast day we celebrate today, fits into the picture.

Aelred of Rievoux is the patron saint of Integrity, but at first he seems an odd choice. He was a celibate Cistercian monk who lived in 12th Century, England.  He entered the religious life at the age of 24 and  became the abbot of the monastery at Rievaux in 1147.  In his Rule of Life for a Recluse, written for an unnamed hermitess, he warns in strident tones about safeguarding ones virginity from defilement with men and women.  Obviously homosexuality was a reality for serious consideration or he would not have bothered to mention both sexes.

And of equal interest, as a novice-master, -- responsible for the training of young men -- he found it necessary to build a tank in which to immerse himself in icy cold water in order to bridle his physical passions. Even in his final days, sick and aged, he felt his celibacy was in need of vigilant protection.

But,  despite the vigilance Aelred paid in later years to preserving his own celibacy, he does not address homosexuality in homophobic terns. Rather it is obvious from all that remains of what he said that he himself was Gay and self-accepting of that fact, that his erotic attraction to men was a dominant force in his life,  and that he viewed it on a par with heterosexuality.  He clearly implied that he did not take on celibacy to avoid his homosexuality. (p. 222ff, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, by John Boswell, ISBN 0-226-06711-4)

Suffice it to say in this context that Aelred decided to abandon his other loves   --   that is:  attachment to the world, family, and his male companion (whom he termed "sweeter to me than all the sweet things of life")   --  not because they were less good or satisfying, but because they could not last forever, whereas his relationship with God could. (Boswell, p. 223). Having put on the habit of monastic life, Aelred accepted with it the vow of celibacy and subsequently considered overt sexuality off limits to himself.  This applied to both gay and non-gay sexuality  --  which he always discussed as complementary (although he was quite aware of the popular prejudice against the former).  But Aelred also realized that not everyone is called to the monastic life, thus such rigorous abstinence was not expected of everyone.

***

What I am getting at here is that our tradition has within it much about universal charity and love of all humankind, but also that we hear very little about worthy expressions of love in practical terms, especially between two people of the same sex.

Aelred attempted to remedy this in his teaching even as he lived out the personal life of a celibate. The gift Aelred gave the Church is the joyous affirmation that we move toward God in and through our relationships with other people, not apart from or in spite of them.  It is also important to remember who those particular individuals were in Aelred's life, whose love taught him of the love of God.  Aelred himself speaks of losing his heart to one boy after another during his school days. He was a man of strong passions, who spoke openly of the men for whom he had deeply romantic attachments; but he never speaks of this in a confessional sense, as if it were sinful -  but always in an affirming accepting way.

After the death of one monk whom he clearly loved, he wrote, "The only one who would not be astonished to see Aelred living without Simon would be someone who did not know how pleasant it was for us to spend our life on earth together; how great a joy it would have been for us to journey to heaven in each other's company . . . .Weep, then, not because Simon has been taken up to heaven, but because Aelred has been left on earth, alone.

***

What I am saying is that if the Church wants it's message to be taken seriously, it must risk getting specific.  The writings of Aelred besides being quite eloquently are also scandalously specific.  In his book, "Mirror of Love" Aelred   invoked an authority higher than even the saints in order to justify the sort of love which so profoundly influenced his life.  That authority was the example of Jesus and John in the Fourth Gospel.  and in giving his description of the perfect love between them, Aelred even refers to their relationship as (& get this) a "marriage."  Of course he is speaking figuratively, but it is more than interesting to reflect upon.

A saint is someone whose life and teaching are a window into heaven, through whom we see God.  It is clear from reading Aelred's  writings that it was in his self-accepted sexual orientation that he was able to understand many things about God.  Through his homosexual orientation we are provided with many unique and wonderful new images of God. And this is why St. Aelred is the Patron saint of Integrity.

Let me now close by reading a lengthy yet eloquent passage from his Mirror of Love.
 
 

"It is in fact a great consolation in this life to have someone to whom you can unite in the intimate embrace of the most sacred love, in whom your spirit can rest, to whom you can pour out your soul, in whose delightful company, as in a sweet soothing song, you can take comfort in the midst of sorrow, in whose friendly bosom you can find peace in worldly setbacks; to whose loving heart you can open as freely as you would to yourself your innermost thoughts; through whose spiritual kisses, -- as by some medicine --, you may draw out all the weariness of your restless anxieties.

"A man who can weep with you in your worries, be happy with you when things go well, wonder with you in doubt; whom you draw with the fetters of love into the inner room of your soul, so that though the body is absent, the spirit is there; and you can confer all alone, the more secretly, the more delightfully; with whom you can rest, just the two of you in the sleep of peace, away from the noise of the world, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity, with the sweetness of the Spirit flowing between you, to whom you so join and unite yourself that soul mingles with soul and two become one. We can enjoy this in the present with those whom we love not merely with our minds but with our hearts; for some are joined to us more intimately and passionately than others in the lovely bond of spiritual friendship.

"And lest this sort of sacred love should seem improper to anyone, Jesus himself, in everything like us, patient and compassionate with us in every matter, transfigured it through the expression of his own love: for he allowed one, not all , to recline on his breast as a sign of his  special love, so that the head of one was supported in the flowers of the virgin breast of the other; and the closer they were, the more copiously did the fragrant secrets of the heavenly marriage impart the sweet smell of spiritual chrism to their virgin love."  


Amen!


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