Susan B. Anthony, Declaration of Rights of the Women, July 4, 1876: “It was the boast of the founders of the republic, that the rights for which they contended were the rights of human nature. If these rights are ignored in the case of one-half the people, the nation is surely preparing for its downfall. Governments try themselves. The recognition of a governing and a governed class is incompatible with the first principles of freedom… Now, at the close of a hundred years, as the hour-hand of the great clock that marks the centuries points to 1876, we declare our faith in the principles of self-government; our full equality with man in natural rights; that woman was made first for her own happiness, with the absolute right to herself – to all the opportunities and advantages life affords for her complete development; and we deny that dogma of the centuries, incorporated in the codes of all nations – that woman was made for man – her best interests, in all cases, to be sacrificed to his will. We ask of our rulers, at this hour, no special favors, no special privileges, no special legislation. We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.”
We have this custom of sharing readings from American history on the weekend of the Fourth of July. It’s a way to mark the holiday without too simply endorsing it. I hesitated about doing it, this year, but when I looked at the readings, and sat with my own feelings a little, I decided we needed these voices.
I don’t know about you, but it’s been a difficult couple of weeks for my patriotism. I’ve been forced to face the fact that, as educated and thoughtful and aware as I think I am, there’s a part of me that has always believed in the ideal of American progress. That has always assumed that as a nation, we’d keep marching in the direction of more rights, more freedoms, more human dignity for all.
And that was a hopeful belief for me, because it was congruent with my values as a Christian – my belief in a God who does not have favorite kinds of people, a God who is about freedom from bondage, and about calling people from the margins to the center, and about human wholeness.
That hopeful belief is what was really shaken by the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe vs Wade – and by the direction that decision seems to point.
The Roe decision is painful and frightening on its own terms. As far as anyone can tell, abortion is now illegal in Wisconsin, with basically no exceptions, due to an 1849 law still on the books. Over half the states in our nation will soon have banned abortion.
I know we likely have a range of convictions and feelings about abortion here. It’s both a big polarized political issue, and a deeply sensitive human issue. Whatever your views, whatever your experiences, I hope you understand that many people with uteruses truly feel less free today than we did two weeks ago. To borrow some phrases from Susan B. Anthony – writing nearly 150 years ago! – we feel consigned to being a governed class, without the absolute right to ourselves.
There’s so much that could be said about abortion. Let me say three things, very briefly. The first is that the Episcopal Church supports legal abortion. The second is that God asked for Mary’s consent before having her bear and birth Jesus Christ.
The third is that the terrain of conceiving or not conceiving, birthing or not birthing, parenting or not parenting, is some of the most tender and delicate territory of our lives. We are so easily bruised, here. When we talk about all this, as perhaps we must, let us strive to listen, and to be kind.
But the impact of overturning Roe is bigger than reproductive rights. It has shaken – shattered – any comfortable sense of progress. For one thing: There is a very real concern, now, that Obergefell is also under threat. If Obergefell isn’t a household name for you: It’s the Supreme Court case which secured a nationwide right to gay marriage.
It meant that same-sex couples were no longer dependent on geography and state governments for whether their marriages – and the many rights and privileges bound up with marriage – were legal.
Obergefell was decided on June 26, 2015. I remember the day! I was at General Convention in Salt Lake City. There was a huge party at a local park. Lots of General Convention deputies joined the celebration. People were dancing. Rainbows everywhere. It was amazing. So much relief. So much joy.
Now, it’s increasingly clear that many conservative leaders, and at least some Supreme Court justices, would like to overturn that decision as well. Every same-sex couple you know is watching and worrying and planning. Figuring out what to they need to do to protect their families, their livelihoods, their selves, in the coming months and years.
As a faith community, part of our work in this season is to find out what it means to have the backs of our gay, lesbian, and gender-diverse members and households, and friends and neighbors too. Dancing in the park isn’t enough anymore.
I believed that rights, once acknowledged by the Supreme Court of our nation, would remain secure. I should have known better. I’m an anthropologist, a student of human nature. I’ve studied the Bible closely. I know that history is full of pendulum swings.
Maybe it’s my naïveté, my whiteness, my privilege, that let me believe otherwise. Probably all of the above. I know plenty of people were never under any such illusions. Those of us who were, are sadder and wiser now – and, I hope, ready to listen and learn from those who have always known that the arc of history only bends towards justice if we all pull on it together with all our strength.
How do we live now? What do we do? How do we show up for each other and ourselves and those burdened, or desperate, or at risk?
Those are questions to be explored in both the short term and the longer term. Let me say again, as I did last week, that if you are looking for people to connect with, to share ideas about how to respond, together, to the times in which we find ourselves, let me know – and we’ll see what takes shape.
I appreciate Paul’s paradoxical advice in today’s Epistle: Bear one another’s burdens; but also, Each will bear their own burden. I think what he means is: Figure out what your work is, and do it. Seek out your way among the many, many ways to work or march or give or serve or sing or study or make art or pray, as part of God’s holy movement for justice, compassion, and the flourishing of humanity and creation.
Do your work. But also, when you have a chance: help others. Lighten their load.
What’s OUR work, at St. Dunstan’s? Well, that’s for us to continue to discern together. But maybe part of our work needs to be digging in to who we think Jesus is, and what we think it means to follow him.
If it’s been a tough couple of weeks for your patriotism, it probably has been for your Christianity too. There are people who claim the faith of Jesus at both extremes. And right now the Jesus who seems to be winning some of these big legal and cultural battles doesn’t look much like the Jesus we talk about around here.
In today’s Gospel Jesus sends out his followers with a simple message to share: The Kingdom of God has come near. I always feel like I need a whole sermon to talk about the Kingdom of God. It can’t be simply explained or described. Jesus talks about it a lot – but he talks about it in stories. The Kingdom of God seems to be Jesus’ vocabulary for … an alternative way of being or seeing or living, or an alternate reality. Maybe it’s somewhere else, or maybe it’s here but hiding just behind our familiar reality. It’s not Heaven; it’s closer and stranger than that.
In the Kingdom of God the last are first, and the lost matter more than the found.
In the Kingdom of God small good things grow, even when big bad things threaten to overwhelm.
The Kingdom of God is an intentional contrast with the powers and politics of this world.
The Kingdom of God is not coercive or controlling. It does not shame or blame. It shines. It teases. It invites.
That inviting mystery of the Kingdom of God is actually pretty important to my spirituality and my faithful living. I don’t claim to understand it! But it calls me.
In the face of a Christianity that seems to want to become more and more deeply embedded in the structures and institutions of this world, I am drawn to a way of faith that invites us to imagine our way into a different kind of world.
In the face of a Christianity that seems to be so much about control and shame, I’m drawn to a Christianity that’s about kindness and possibility and play.
In the face of a Christianity that makes laws, I’m drawn to a Christianity that tells stories.
And even if I can’t believe in American history as an inevitable march from worse to better, I do still believe in a God at work in human history and human hearts.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days. Amen.