Sermon by Bishop Righter in Dallas

Sermon by
the Rt. Rev. Walter Righter (Ret.),
VII Bishop of Iowa
at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration
Dallas, Texas

February 20, 1999

I'm really pleased to be back in Dallas. To be here at Transfiguration for the first time. And to be with Jerry, whom you call J.D. I call him Jerry. He is my first ordinand. We had some great times together during his time in Iowa. I've never said this to him, but when you ordain somebody and see them progress through the years there are some people you wish you hadn't ordained. And there are others that, well, it's ok. And then there are those whom you're glad you did ordain. Jerry's in the latter category for me. I'm glad I did. I'm glad he's where he is with you because he needed a broader place of service than he had in Iowa. It just seems from what he said that this is a great place for him to be.

As he probably told you, I took a spill out there. So if you can somehow get beyond all this funny cosmetic stuff, let's talk a little bit, I want to talk a little bit about the gospel. And Jerry's kind enough to let me be here without vestments, to let me sit in this chair. If it all goes ok I may start roaming around and if I do I'll be careful. My wife is here with me and I had to say I'll be careful because if I didn't I'd be in trouble. Nancy can you put your hand up?

One of the things about life today is illustrated for me in this. When I lived in Iowa we had a newspaper that claimed it was the newspaper all of Iowa depended upon. And pretty generally it was a kind of classic middle-of the -road liberal paper. Every once in a while the newspaper would act like it was going to become our moral guide. And one of the editorials said "Don't watch the Newlywed Game on television, it's risque, it's really awful. You know you shouldn't particularly let your children see that program."

Well I decided if they were going to be the moral arbiters for the state of Iowa, I'd better watch that program to find out what they were fussing about. I put the program on regularly for several weeks just to see what it was. How many of you have ever seen that Newlywed Game? A lot of you. A bride and groom are separated and they're asked the same question and they give their answers. When they come back together, if their answers match they win a prize. Well I didn't find the program risque, as a matter of fact, I found it kind of dumb. But, one of the questions kept occurring again and again and the response was the same. Bride and groom did not match. The match has to be the correct answer too, incidentally.

The question was "From where you live does the sun rise in the East or the West?" About 85% of the time, they did not know the right answer. I think what that represents is this. The way in which the fast pace of moving from rural society to urban society and from urban society to technological society and information society has caused a lot of people simply to be disoriented.

You know if you're on a farm and you get up in the morning you know darned well where the sun comes up and you know the directions. But if you're in the city you can get disoriented and I think that's happened to us as Christians. Christians have a point of reference, I don't know what the compass points are here, but our point of reference, our East, is the altar. The altar is supposed to be the East, or if it's not in the geographic East, it's still in what people call the Ecclesiastical East. So you have a point of reference, the altar gives us that point of reference. No matter how disoriented we may get about life in general. That's the first thing I want to say preparatory to what I really want to say.

The second preparatory thing I want to say is this. Besides being disoriented, we live, all of us, with assumptions we've grown up with, assumptions that help make sense out of life for us. Some of those assumptions need to be looked at carefully. There's a story about an athlete who had a lot of trouble getting grades. Good athlete in college, he had a lot of trouble getting good grades. So the Dean called him in and said, "Look, you're not going to graduate with the grades you've got, but I"ll make you a deal. I have three questions I want you to answer.

And if you'll answer those questions correctly then we'll give you your diploma. But if you miss any of them, no diploma." And the athlete said, "Well, fair enough. I want my diploma and I've played good football, so fire away." So the Dean said "Ok, the first question is How many seconds are there in a year?" And the athlete scratched his head and said, "Oh gee, you gotta use a lot of math for that. Can I have until tomorrow to answer that?" And the Dean said "Yeah, you can take that, but tomorrow you gotta be here with the right answer." "OK. What's the second question?" said the athlete. The Dean said, "How many days of the week begin with T?" And he said, "Well I gotta think about that, too. It's not as complicated mathematically, but I still need to be careful because I don't want to give the wrong answer. Can I wait till tomorrow for that?" And the Dean said, "All right, tomorrow. Come back, but with the right answer."

"What's the third question?" said the athlete. And the Dean said, "How many D's in Rudolph?" And the athlete said "Well, gee, that's mathematics and it's music. I'm not ready to answer that either so can I wait till tomorrow for that too?" And the Dean said "Ok you wait. But tomorrow all the questions have to be answered correctly." So he came back the next day. Dean said, "You ready?" And he said "Yes, best I can." The Dean said "All right, how many seconds in a year?" The athlete said "Twelve." The Dean said "Twelve? Where'd you get twelve?" He said "Well, January 2nd, February 2nd, March 2nd, April 2nd..." The Dean said "Well that's a satisfactory answer, so we'll pass on that. Now how many days of the week begin with T?" And the athlete said, "Two." And the Dean said, "Well that's the right answer, we'll give you credit for that one. Out of curiosity, what are those days?" And the athlete said, "Well, today and tomorrow." So then he said, "All right, third question, how many Ds in Rudolph?" And the athlete said, "That's the hardest question you gave me. I counted so many times and I always got a different answer, so I'm just going to have to throw myself on your mercy and let you decide whether I pass or not." Dean said "All right, how many Ds?" And the athlete said "257."

And the Dean said, "Two-hundred and fifty seven? Where'd you get 257 from?" He said, "Well I counted them one by one, you know ^—Dee dee dee dee dee dee dee" (Tune of "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer")

You see, what we were dealing with, in all of that was our assumptions about what those questions meant, and the athlete's assumptions. The assumptions we live by are often subtly inadequate for the life we have to live. So what's going on? You all know I got presented for heresy by ten bishops, one of whom was yours. And that presentation simply led a lot of people into their presumptions, dealing with what society is like, how they fit in.

My friend, Bishop Spong, who's written a lot of books and is a lot more famous than I am, got into trouble over the ordination of a gay many like I did. He got a hundred letters a day, 75% of them hate mail. It was orchestrated hate mail. During that time there were days when he couldn't even talk about that, it was so heavy on his soul. But he had a letter from a friend who was the retired Bishop of Atlanta, who I think somebody told me had been here doing something not too long ago, Ben Simms. Ben said, "Jack, you gotta understand what you did. You moved the totem. You moved the totem."

The totem pole in front of people's houses or tepees or wickiups was the story of the family inside. It created a kind of mysterious protection for the family inside. When you move the totem, you move the protection, you move the history, all kinds of stuff. That's sort of what's been going on in our society. Not just about sexuality, but about all kinds of issues and all kinds of ideas. The totems have been moved and are moving. We have to cope. We have to cope by understanding that our assumptions need to be examined and the way in which we orient ourselves, these need to be carefully thought out... Let me just name some of the totems that have been moved.

One obvious one which I was involved in is the totem we call sexuality. Sexuality is up for grabs all over the world. The roles of men and women are changing all over the world. I say all over the world illustrated by the young African woman who came to this country and asked for asylum so she would not have to have a clitorectomy according to the custom of her culture. That became an international incident. It was not about sexuality so much as it was about the rights of human beings.

I think that the changing roles for men and women make men more nervous than women because women still have a kind of central role that is tied up with their sexuality and that's bearing children. Men are being house parents, too. That totem has been moved ever since Dr. Rock said "Here's a pill you can take for birth control" the totem got moved. Women can make choices by themselves. That's one of the totems that I just want to hold up.

We're also engaged in a time when I think God is trying to give us new revelations about human beings which we haven't had before. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross tells us what death is like. There are other people who tell us new information about why we behave the way we do. We're involved in a revolution of knowledge, but also a revelation about the potentials of you and me. Potentials that simply haven't been known about or even realized up till now.

I'd like to be getting ordained today with fifty years ahead of me, because I think the next fifty years in the life of the institution called the church will be tremendous years. Whatever time Jerry has left in the ordained ministry will be more exciting than any of the time he has spent so far. I'm convinced of that, no matter where he is it's going to be more exciting.

What that all comes down to is that the Bible as we know it also has to have presumptions challenged. The faith as we know it has to have presumptions challenged. My friend, Jack Spong, has written a book called Why Christianity Must Change or Die. I don't agree with everything he said in the book and you shouldn't either. But the idea that that must be examined is a very good idea. We need to look at Christianity and we need to look at the Bible which is a source book for us. I can't understand how someone can look at the Bible, read a verse and say, "that's it."

The Lambeth conference which is a meeting of 700 of our bishops happens every ten years, it has no power, it doesn't even have moral power. The bishops get together to talk with each other. It was never meant to pass complicated resolutions, but it did the last time it met. And it said, homosexuality is incompatible with scripture. I find that incomprehensible. Homosexuality is not incompatible with scripture. We have two things about reading scripture in our church. One, you say what does it say in scripture; and two, you say what does it mean. So you have to read it from both directions. The bishops at Lambeth simply did not do their homework!

You have to read the Bible in context. I saw a Ugandan priest a couple of months ago and I asked him what he thought about Lambeth. And he said, "It wasn't about sexuality at all, bishop. It was about culture and it was about social contracts in all these different countries where the Anglican communion is." There's a Presbyterian theologian named Walter Wink. He has written a lot of books about demons and demonology. He's written a little pamphlet called "Homosexuality and the Bible," which I think people ought to read. He says (and this is my language, not his) for the homosexual person to lie with the heterosexual person is wrong, for a heterosexual person to lie with a homosexual person is wrong. Heterosexual people must lie with heterosexuals, homosexual people, to be true to their nature, must lie with homosexual people.

Now think about how the church has behaved. The church has said -- I don't mean just the Episcopal church; but I mean the Christian church: "If you're homosexual you can change, get married and nobody will ever know. Have children and it will prove you're OK." That's what I call religious abuse. That is not good news. Like hell. That's oppression! To be true to ourselves, to be true to our natures, is what God asks of us. And I'm not talking about immorality or predatory instincts. I'm talking about being normal -- heterosexual with heterosexual, homosexual with homosexual -- that's good news. That's another kind of totem we need to look at and understand it's being moved.

Six hundred million people in the world are homosexual. Twenty-seven million people in the United States are homosexual. Add to that two parents, that's fifty-four million more, and then add some friends. A sizeable chunk of the population.

I'm glad to see that gradually our country is becoming aware of what is happening. Gradually our politicians are becoming aware of what's happening. That's the ferment that we're engaged in. A good news ferment.

Now how do we pull that all together? How do I pull all that together? I realize a lot of you may disagree with me and, if you do, that's a right you have. That's what the Episcopal church is all about. The Episcopal church is not about agreeing with your bishop. Because your bishop puts his pants on the same way everybody else does, one leg at a time.

The Episcopal church is about dialogue with each other. The Lambeth Conference did say talk with each other about this issue. I'm not sure how much we've done that. That's one of the reasons why I don't hesitate to raise these issues, we're supposed to talk about these things, we're supposed to share with each other. Not in a closed mind, but in an attitude of revelations occurring; in an attitude of what can we discover. One of the Biblical lessons I heard read last July jumped at me when the reader read it. Nancy and I went to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to a church where we'd never been. It was a great experience. The lesson said, "the Lord changed His mind." The Lord changed His mind. The Lord can change His mind. We can change ours.

Now my way of pulling it all together is something like this. (I hope I don't give Nancy fits, but I'm going to get up and I'm going to walk around a little bit. Your parish nurses were wonderful to me, and the medic was wonderful. I think I'm safe. I don't know where you guys are. But I think I'm all right, so thanks.).

When I got into the business of deciding I was going to study for holy orders I went to see my bishop. That's the way we did it in those days, the bishop said yes or no and you were either in or out. No committees or anything like that. And in ten minutes he asked me all the questions he needed to ask me and I was ready to go. He said, "I'll accept you as a postulant. Get your education, and come back and you'll get ordained." And as I left his office he said, "Walter, you gotta work in a steel mill or a coal mine. Nobody gets ordained in this diocese unless you work in a steel mill or a coal mine." None of us knew that he couldn't make us do that. There were seven of us and we all scurried off and we got jobs in steel mills or coal mines.

I got a job in a steel mill, a great experience. The bishop had said, "Now don't try to convert everybody in the mill. Don't try to sell them on religion or God. Don't get into arguments about theology. Learn what it's like to work on an assembly line in a dangerous place. Appreciate what those people are doing who are working there. Understand what that is. Because they are the people you will be pastor for." Every day I got on a street car and I rode to the Homestead plant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is a famous place. I got on a street car and I rode to the mill with a man who worked with me. He was an interesting character. He knew every four letter word in the book and he used them in the mill, all the time. But he used them to make sure we would be safe. He kept me from being injured seriously in that mill several times.

We talked about all kinds of stuff, but the question about God and religion didn't come up. We were talking about steel mills and the people who worked there, and the future of the mill, and the future of the industry and stuff like that. The time came for me to stop working in the mill and go back to seminary.

I told my boss that I had to leave. Word began to spread through the mill. And I was walking around in the mill and this man who I rode the streetcar with and who used every four letter word in the book put his hands on his hips right in front of me and he said, "You're leaving I hear." The bishop had said, "Tell the truth, but don't get too involved." So I said, "Yes." The next question was, "What are you going to do?" -- with his hands on his hips. I said, "I'm going back to school." You know, tell the truth, but don't volunteer much. And he put his hands down and he said, "Damn it to hell, I know you're going to go back to school, we know that. But what are you going to do when you get there? Are you going to study metallurgy and come back here and help us make better steel? Are you going to study accounting and take all the money out of the mill so the mill will close and fail? What are you going to do?" I was backed up against a wall, and the bishop said to tell the truth, so I said, "I'm going to study for the priesthood in the Episcopal church." He put his hands on his hips again and he said, "Well for Christ's sake." And then he got this little twinkle in his eye, and he said, "That's what it's all about isn't it?" That's what it's all about. For Christ's sake.

Jesus said, "In as much as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me." We have to be certain that we are treating other human beings with respect and dignity, because what we are doing is treating Jesus Christ, for Christ's sake. You don't beat a kid at the University of Wyoming and dump him over a fence and let him die. That's not for Christ's sake. That's murder. Our behavior, if it's focused on Jesus Christ as God's son, our behavior represents for others the truth we know, the hope we share. Terry Waite, that magnificent hunk of manhood who was the Archbishop of Canterbury's chaplain or general guard, spent more than 400 days in captivity. He's just written a book in which he said, it's not faith that kept him going in that prison. What kept him going was hope. Hope. We can provide that. For other people in this community. Hope that God is real. Hope that God cares and loves. Each one of us. Hope that we're acting in the name of God through Jesus Christ his son. For Christ's sake.


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