THE CHURCH OF THE REDEEMER
SERMON: "To Love the Other is to Love Yourself "
The Rev'd Phillip Dana Wilson January 24, 1999
You are part of the "other" and the "other" is part of you. To love the "other" is to love yourself. It is the foundation of the Golden Rule which is to love your neighbor as yourself. It is a basic tenet in every religion I know.
So, the important questions for us today are these: "Who is the "other" and how do we make our love for him or her real? How do we put it into practice? The answer will always be specific to particular people in a particular situation at a particular time. One answer, I believe, for this time and this place is the proposal made by Mayor John DeLaney and supported by Council President Dick Tighe granting Domestic Partner befits to people in committed and established relationships, who, for one reason or another, are not married or who are not permitted to marry.
You may be thinking that this sounds a like the marriage of religion and politics. But, let me tell you, the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian scriptures, are full of specific answers to the question of how we make the love for the "other" a reality. And, often it takes, if not a marriage, at least, a "living together" relationship between religion and politics.
Now sit back and listen to the story of Jonah, the subject for the Hebrew scripture for today. (1) Jonah is a whole lot more than a fish story. It is a specific answer to the question: "Who is the other? And, how do I love the other as myself?"
Context is everything, so let me set the scene. The Israelites think that they are God's chosen people and, certainly, God's favorites. But, the great Babylonian army sweeps over the land sacking cities and taking the leaders of the nation into exile. So, much for being a chosen people. All the time while in exile the leaders of Israel stew over the puzzle of how an all-powerful God, who loves them the best, would permit the Jewish nation to be conquered and occupied. It just does not make sense.
By and by, a new king, Cyrus, comes to the throne with a foreign policy that does not include holding conquered leaders in exile. The Israelites are sent home. Still the questions haunt them: "Why did this happen? How could God have allowed it?" When they get home, they discover that life has changed. More and more non-Jews, foreigners, have moved in and married Hebrew men and women. The purity of Jewish blood and traditions is no longer so pure. Aha! The leaders found their answer as to why their God has permitted such suffering. It is all the fault of the foreigners. They are polluting the blood and the faith of the nation. God is punishing Israel because of the foreigners. So, the leadership of Israel goes on a campaign to rip from their soil every trace of this foreign weed. Land is confiscated. People are driven from their homes. Marriages are automatically dissolved. Workers are dismissed. Children with any foreign blood are made outcastes, often sold into slavery. Foreign women received the worst of the treatment because it was assumed that they used their irresistible sexual powers to seduce innocent and vulnerable Jewish men.
Into this situation comes a prophet, a religious man, who is horrified by what he sees. "What is happening to the most basic tenet of Judaism, the respect for human life? What is happening to the commandment found in the book of Leviticus to love your neighbor as yourself?" So, in response, this prophet creates a little fish story and circulates it among the people. It is a story that calls Israel back to its roots. It is a story that goes to the heart of the Hebrew faith.
In this story a certain Jonah is told by God to go to Nineveh, a foreign city of 140,000 people, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. God says, "Go and preach to them of my forgiveness. Preach that if they will only repent from their ways, Nineveh and all its people will be saved from destruction." Jonah salivates at the thought of the destruction of Nineveh and the 140,000 foreigners in it. Jonah is dumbfounded by what God tells him. "God you must be crazy. The foreigners are the cause of all the pain and suffering in our land. How can you offer them even the possibility of forgiveness?" God says, "Go anyway." Jonah says, "okay," and goes down to the harbor and gets a boat heading west. Now be aware, Nineveh is over land to the east.
Out in the boat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea a great storm comes up with the power to send everyone to the bottom. The captain, realizing that this storm is of supernatural proportions, concludes that his one passenger Jonah, who is a little vague in his travel plans, must be the cause of such weather. To save the ship Jonah is tossed over the side. When you write your own story you can include in it anything you want. So, as luck would have it, a great fish, and I mean big, is swimming along side the boat. The fish swallows Jonah whole and takes him back to the shores of Israel. God says, "Jonah you are going the wrong way. Go to the people of Nineveh and preach forgiveness." Reluctantly, begrudgingly, Jonah does go and half-heartedly puts out the word, "Repent of your ways and turn to God and God will spare the city and all that are in it." Amazingly, all the people of the city, from king to slave, repent and ask for forgiveness and are saved. Jonah is furious. (2)
The people on the streets of Jerusalem, reading this little story, get the point. The "other" is the foreigner in our midst. If God can love the "other" so must we. This story speaks to a specific time and a specific situation the eternal truth: You are part of the "other" and the "other" is part of you. To love the "other" is to love yourself.
This same eternal truth goes to the heart of Jesus' ministry, which begins with his baptism, as you heard described in today's Gospel. (3) In Jesus' time and place, the "other" is the person with a disease, with leprosy, blindness, and uncontrollable flow of blood. The "other" is the half-breed Samaritan, rejected because of the presence of Gentiles in her family tree. The "other" is the Syro-Phoenician woman and all women in general. The "other" is the tax collector and the prostitute. The "other" is the widow, the orphan, the persecuted, the one on the outside looking in. And, what does Jesus do? He touches them. He embraces them. He eats with them, telling the whole world that he and they are all part of one family, all children of the same God. Such thinking scares those who control by means of divide and conquer.
In the course of his ministry Jesus spins a grand dream of what is possible if we all, deep within us, know that we are part of the "other" and the "other" is part of us. Within Jesus' dream, he sees a great banquet in which God is the host and the guests include Samaritans and Jews, the sick and the well, the rich and the poor, women and men, tax collectors and Pharisees, the pure and those deemed "not so pure." They are all at the meal, around the same table, because they belong there. It is a family meal.
If the faith of the author of Jonah and the faith of Jesus has any power today, it is the power to make us stop and hear and hopefully respond to these questions. Who is the "other" in our midst today? How much do we realize that we are one with him or her? And, how are we expressing that oneness in our particular time and our place. Usually, the "other" is the person on the lower rung of the power ladder, looking up. Usually, the "other" is the person in the minority. Usually, the "other" is the person perceived as being different, as less than normal. In a world of white privilege, the "other" is black. In a male corporate structure the "other" is female. In a world of healthy "outdoors" bodies climbing the sides of mountains, the "other" is the person missing some limbs, riding in a wheel chair or who is mentally or physically challenged. In a world, which defines the family as a man and a woman and 2.5 children with a dog and a jeep Cherokee wagon, the "others" are gay and lesbian people and their relationships. Remember that it was not too long ago that the "other" was someone who was left-handed.
You are part of the "other" and the "other" is part of you. To love the "other" is to love yourself. So, how do we put this into practice? I am convinced that one way to do this is in the proposal made by Mayor DeLaney and supported by Council President Tighe, both of whom are here today. This is a proposal to extend to all town employees those benefits now enjoyed by straight married couples. It means extending benefits to gay and lesbian people in committed relationships, along with other unmarried people. For gay and lesbian people it is simply a matter of justice, for they are not permitted to marry in this society that clearly sees them as "less than."
This sermon is not about defending gay and lesbian people. Who am I to think I have to defend what God has created? This is not about defending the gay and lesbian life style. Let me tell you, be on guard every time you hear someone condemn the "gay and lesbian life style." This is code for a homophobic stereotype. What is the gay and lesbian life style? Well, as I look around in this parish, I see the gay and lesbian lifestyle as getting up and going to work like everyone else, as owning a home and raking the leaves, as paying property tax.
I see the gay and lesbian lifestyle, for some people, as adopting or having children, getting up in the middle of the night with them, going to PTA meetings at school, worrying when they get sick and making sure they get enough love to combat society's fears. I see the gay and lesbian lifestyle as going to church, singing in the choir, as serving on the vestry and as volunteering in the Community Soup Kitchen.
Carter Heyward in today's Contemporary lesson (4) reminds us that love is concrete, not a sweet feeling, not about sentiment and attachments. Love is active and proactive. To make love is to make justice. Love is about treating people fairly. Love is about a proposal to extend the benefits of committed married people to those who are equally committed but who are not allowed to marry. What a catch-22! You can only get medical benefits if you are married, but you are not allowed to marry. This is not some liberal agenda we are talking about, but about making real today in our time and place what Jesus and the author of Jonah made real in their lives.
Politicians are always suspected of having an ulterior motive. But, maybe, just maybe, some politicians do what they do because they believe that is the right thing. Maybe some even listen when they go to church or synagogue and hear it said that God loves all people as children of the same family. Yes, religion and politics are very different. But, it often takes politics to put in place the great spiritual truths. Just ask Martin Luther King or Gandhi.
In some situations each of us is the "other." When we get in touch with that and feel how it feels and how it hurts, then we become more sensitive to the need for justice for people who are kept on the bottom looking up.
Martin Luther King had a dream and Jesus had a vision of life when the rule of God, of justice and love, is honored. We can dream also today. Jesus vision might be of a great banquet, but mine is that of a town-wide picnic where everyone in the town comes because everyone feels that he or she belongs. Blacks and whites are laughing and joking with each other, no one off in a section with their own kind. Jews and Christians and Muslims are sitting around asking what each believes and listening for the answers. Wheelchair races are going on along side foot races and the trophy for each winner is the same size. The children of Julie and Kate are busy planning a sleepover with the children of Jim and Joan. And, the sons of Hank and Donald think it's not fair that they can't go to an all-girls slumber party. And, the three sets of parents are swapping stories of what it was like when they got married, legally. After the picnic no one knows what to do with the left over food because the Community Soup Kitchen went out of business two year ago for lack of people needing its services.
This is what life could look like in Morristown if we knew, really knew, that we are part of the "other" and the "other" is part of us. It is a dream that happens little by little, proposal by proposal. When we know, really know that we are each part of the "other" and the "other" is part of us, then the very idea of the "other" begins to loose meaning. Maybe, that is the very best part of the dream.
a.. Jonah 3:1-5, 10
b.. Interpretation of Jonah from John S. Spong
c.. Matthew 3:13-17
d.. From Our Passion for Justice by Carter Heyward
Church of the Redeemer at it regularly scheduled meeting on January 11, 1999.
Be it resolved that the Church of the Redeemer strongly supports Mayor DeLaney's proposal to offer health benefits to domestic partners of Morristown employees, including same-sex couples. This is seen as an extremely important step towards fairness and justice for domestic partners. Implementing this proposal will set an excellent example for other governing bodies and businesses. It also will give homosexual couples access to the same benefits that heterosexual couples take for granted.
By proposing domestic-partner benefits for same-sex couples, Mayor DeLaney has given the Town Council of Morristown a clear choice: Vote "yes" to erode discrimination by offering these benefits or vote "no" to perpetuate a policy of inequality.
We, the Vestry of Redeemer, think the right choice is clear, especially in this community, which prides itself on diversity and acceptance. Mayor DeLaney is to be commended for standing up for what is right.
We, the Vestry of Redeemer urge the Town Council of Morristown to support this proposal and implement its provisions in the next Town budget.
Certified by the Clerk of the Vestry
January 20, 1999
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