St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Coconut Grove, Fla.
Today is the feast of Christ the King. This is the sermon I was going to preach. It wasn’t bad. All about Christ the King. So what? What has that got to do with our lives today? I don’t want to preach about this. I want to preach about something that’s really important. I want to preach about Taking Back Christianity. I don’t know about you, but I’m embarrassed to death to call myself a Christian these days. And I resent that. The name “Christian” has been hijacked, taken over, and practically patented by a particular sect of Christianity, and it’s been stolen right out from under me. How dare they! I read that this latest election was decided by something called “moral values.” That is, specifically, opposition to abortion and to gay marriage. Those were the two moral issues that made all the so-called Christians stand up and be counted. Christian values, Christian morals – we are told that these won out in this election.
Well, they aren’t my Christian morals, and I don’t want to be that kind of Christian. I don’t want a name that implies I think or feel or believe like people who make these their highest values-or fears. There are many Christianities out there-always have been. The Religious Rightwing, the fundamentalists, the zealots, the anti-intellectual evangelicals — have a lot of nerve trying to claim that their very narrow brand of Christianity is the only one. I say it is time true Christians – and by that I mean people who believe in and follow and actually live the teachings of Jesus – it’s time true Christians reclaimed the name “Christian” and stopped being co-opted by persons who have little knowledge, understanding, or practical application in their own lives of Christian principles.
Oh, I know we’re not supposed to say that. Not polite. Not discrete. Here in the Episcopal Church, we’re just coming face-to-face with the fact that the great Anglican sin is not murder or betraying your country or even apostasy, but indiscretion. We’ve been taught all our lives never to say anything too harsh about religious. Do and say anything for the sake of the mythical ideal of “Unity,” so we can keep everyone in the fold, no matter what they believe or do.
Not long ago, we had a good ol’ evangelical Archbishop of Canterbury who said and did totally stupid things, but at least you knew where he stood. Now we have a good ol’ liberal Archbishop of Canterbury, an intellectual one-one who actually reads books-and he has been so terrified of speaking his conscience that he has allowed a tiny group of African and fringe-nation bishops to dominate the entire Anglican Communion. The fact that these bishops are “people of color” prevents a good liberal from pointing out the truth-that they are poorly educated, theologically unsophisticated, socially regressive, and very happy to very publicly accept expensive gifts and large sums of money from the small but wealthy rear-guard traditionalists of the Episcopal Church in exchange for working everyone into a lather about the consecration of Gene Robinson.
Whoops! We’re not supposed to say that either. And Gene Robinson isn’t supposed to say that he’s gay. It’s OK that he is gay-as long he just lies about it as thousands of other gay clergy have over the years. Whatever you do, don’t tell the truth! Well, I want to tell the truth. I’m tired of counting the angels dancing on the heads of pins while our culture collapses around us. It’s not just the church, as the election proved.
Real Christians have to stand up and say, “Morality? This is what you call morality? You’ve got to be kidding!” Real Christians have to point out that “Christian” means “someone who follows the example and teachings of Jesus,” not “someone who will swallow whatever a preacher will tell them.” Real Christians have to take this book that everyone keeps referring to, this Bible, and actually read it and find out what those teachings are.
In the book, Jesus never said a word about abortions. Some Christians oppose aborting a fetus that cannot even live on its own, but this deeply held conviction did not prevent millions of good life-respecting Christians from voting to continue an unprovoked and falsely justified war of aggression that has killed tens of thousands of perfectly innocent people who were already living. I think Jesus probably would not have liked this.
In the book, Jesus never said one word about homosexuality. It probably never even crossed his mind. As a matter of fact, Jesus very seldom talked about “thou shalt nots”-about terrible things you weren’t supposed to do. His morality was about what you were supposed to do. He was crystal clear about “thou shalts.” Here is what morality is, according to Jesus: Feed the poor (there are about 12 million people in our country who worry daily about whether they will have food); comfort the prisoners (probably includes not torturing or shooting them); accept the outcast (the queer, the single mother, the street person, the Muslim); shelter the homeless (and stop creating more of them); be good stewards and shepherds (stop raping the environment); depend on God, not on wealth (and don’t collect it at the expense of the poor); treat others as you would have them treat you. And FIGHT for justice.
This is the morality Jesus taught. This is Christian morality. This is what “good” Christians endeavor to do. Everything else is self-righteous proof-texting of the old Hebrew Scriptures and unworthy of the adjective “Christian.” Morality? Murder and violent aggression are immoral. Allowing people to wallow in poverty is immoral. Raising children to hate others for any reason is immoral. Rewarding the rich and greedy is immoral. Lying is immoral. Suspending basic human rights is immoral. Torturing prisoners is immoral. How dare the supporters of a list of atrocities like these claim to be voting for morality?
I’ll tell you why they claim it. They think they’re “moral” because their priests and pastors and preachers tell them they are. These insecure and often power-hungry leaders feed on people’s basest fears, they prey on the weak, they threaten true believers with hell on earth and hell afterward. Now, that’s immoral! It doesn’t matter that most of it is lies. It doesn’t matter that the preachers and priests have proven themselves a dismally badly behaved bunch themselves. It doesn’t matter that the churches are temples to greed and self-indulgence and self-righteousness.
These people have been allowed to claim the title “Christian” because we have done nothing to stop them. We good Episcopalians and other liberals-yes, I’m using the dreaded “L” word-have chosen good manners over fighting for justice, and now we have to face the fact that we have lost Christianity. We have handed it over, lock, stock and barrel.
It’s time to take it back! And to do that we’re going to have to “get real.” A small example: There isn’t one of you here at St. Stephen’s who doesn’t know, like, respect, appreciate someone who’s homosexual. I was going to ask everyone gay here to stand up, but I guess I won’t do that. I’ll stand here, though, and anyone who wants to join me can. Look around you. Gay people cook your picnics and wear your vestments and sing your music and raise your money and run your outreach and sit on your vestry (and guess what? even your school board!)
How could any of you-our brothers and sisters — morally have voted for a candidate who used homophobia to mobilize votes, who spread and encouraged hatred of gay people, who would deny gays such simple civil rights as being able to visit a partner in the hospital, and who used Christianity to support that position? Get real-these are your friends you voted against. But maybe that issue wasn’t as important to you as it was to the “moral majority.”
So, let’s get real — we act viscerally, we are easily swayed, we don’t want to look too closely at the consequences of our actions. We find it hard to really follow Jesus’ commands. We pick and choose our moral positions to make ourselves most comfortable. But since there’s one thing we’re always moral about-being polite — we don’t speak out against the theft of Christianity, we don’t want to tell the harsh truth about the hijackers of morality, we don’t dare mention that the emperor has no clothes. We think we have taken the high road by doing this. What we have taken is a dead-end to nowhere.
Get real. Read the book. Listen to what Jesus says. Do the right thing. And speak out. Rise up and take back Christianity, so that we can be proud to be Christians again. Talk loudly and often about real Christian morals. Practice them conspicuously. Refuse to be intimidated when bigotry and fear and power-hunger drape themselves in the robe of morality. Apply your morality to your life and your votes. It is not just an election at stake here-it is the future of Christianity, and the ethical face of tomorrow’s world. If we don’t stand up and take back Christianity, we can hardly expect our children to do it. The time is now. Get real. Get Christian.
The first Episcopal woman priest to serve as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy Reserve, Rev. Canon Lesley A. Northup served as dean of the Honors College at Florida International University and is the author of Ritualizing Women: Patterns and Practices, Women and Religious Ritual, and The 1892 Book of Common Prayer.