Third Sunday after Pentecost
I Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Ps 16, Gal 5: 1, 13-25; Luke 9: 51-62
Friday was an extraordinary day for me, as a citizen of the United States. When I woke, I was legally a human being. A few hours later, however, I had fewer rights in many parts of my home country than a cluster of four cells — or, as I later read, a corpse. After all, when you die, they cannot harvest your organs unless you have explicitly consented to be a donor. As a living woman, however, my organs can now be co-opted by my husband, my boyfriend, my rapist, or my incestuous abuser without my having consented in any way.
Being transformed from a human being into something less is an unsettling experience — one I would not recommend. After I learned that Roe v. Wade had been repealed, I sat in silence for a long time, trying to get a sense of the contours of this new world. I thought of two of my closest friends, women who have suffered a terrible series of miscarriages, losing longed-for pregnancies which had been conceived within the sanctity of loving and mutually-supportive Christian marriages. I thought of the fact that the medical treatment which had saved their lives is now illegal in many states, including the ones in which they live. I thought what my life would be without them, and without the beautiful children they had finally been able to bear. I tried to imagine what the world would be without their gifts as scholars, educators, pastors, and artists.
I thought about another friend who became pregnant at a time when she did not feel that she could be a good mother. I thought about the life she created after her abortion — the doctorate she earned, the university career, the marriage and the children — each of whom knows that he or she was deeply wanted and is deeply loved. I wondered how much of her potential she would have been able to salvage if she’d had a child at nineteen. I wondered what that child would have been like, if he, she, or they had been born.
I thought about the woman I visited in hospital when her twins were born a week before they would have been viable, how she looked at me in unspeakable pain and cried out, “For twenty-six minutes, I was a mother.” It was her fourth miscarriage and yet, her mother, a conservative Catholic, was already urging her to try again. I leaned across the life support equipment and said, “Your daughter almost died today.” She replied, “I almost died bearing her! It is her responsibility to have a child. Don’t you dare suggest she adopt.” I remember the rage I felt just then, knowing that this woman was actually willing to sacrifice her daughter on the altar of rigid conviction (heartfelt though it may have been). I remember swallowing it, knowing that this was neither the time nor the place to take her on.
And I remembered another woman, one who already had children when she learned she was pregnant again. The doctors were unanimous that she must not try to carry that child: the last time, she had suffered a complication so severe that there were actually no known cases of any such woman trying to give birth again. The woman and her husband wanted this child, and so they disregarded the medical advice. They went ahead with the pregnancy, in full awareness that it could leave their existing children to be raised by their father alone. I remembered waiting in the birthing chamber, all of us trying to pretend this was an ordinary delivery, except that it’s not ordinary to have your parents and your in-laws and your priest in there, nor to have a code-team waiting six inches outside the door, so that if your heart stops again, they can try to bring you back. I remember our profound joy and relief when they placed her daughter in her arms. I tried to imagine what that ordeal would have been like if she had not wanted to go through it, and I could not.
My failure of imagination marks a break-point; it reveals me as a woman who grew up in a world in which I had a certain kind of freedom.
Those stories, and a hundred like them which I could tell, point to the truth that human reproduction is a complex, dangerous, joyful, and sometimes-painful reality, one which eludes simplistic guidelines or regulations. It has been my privilege as a priest to accompany many women and men through these decisions and realities, and I have never seen anyone take them lightly.
One reason that people of faith struggle for unity on these issues is that Scripture is remarkably silent about them. The only time medically-induced abortion is mentioned in Scripture refers to a judicial context in which abortion is mandatory (Num 5:24). I am glad we no longer follow that teaching. Instead, Christians and Jews alike wrestle to extrapolate from our core convictions how we are supposed to act. Within both Biblical faiths, and even within the confines of the Anglican tradition, there are a wide variety of perspectives. For example, the polices of the Episcopal Church, USA, and those of the Anglican Church of Canada are strikingly different, with the former standing in strong support of a woman’s right to choose, while the latter favors the rights of the foetus, except where the mother’s life or health are in danger. It also urges us to work for a world in which no woman would need to have an abortion because she is unable to support a child. Most of us probably lie somewhere between those poles, but we are not going to resolve that today — nor do we need to. From its inception, the Anglican Church has invited people of different beliefs to pray side by side, trusting that the God who made each of us has commanded us to love one another.
What is strikingly clear, however, no matter what you believe about abortion itself, is that taking away the right to choose will have a profound and transformative effect on women’s lives. For many American women, that freedom is now gone, and a host of other freedoms with it. Compulsory motherhood rearranges people’s lives. It can curtail the freedom to seek an education or build a career; for those who are poor, it can impose the necessity of working at a dead-end job to pay the bills, even for someone who is capable of so much more. Those impacts are now compounded by the horror of the enforcement mechanism which has been adopted by several states, which commissions citizens as informers, paying them a bounty to turn their neighbors in.
This kind of demonic mechanism — and I use that term advisedly, as it will bring out the worst in many people — this mechanism creates a climate of pervasive distrust, dividing communities against one another, forcing people to speak only in whispers, behind closed doors, or not to speak at all. But the possibility of being turned in for seeking an abortion is the least of it, because, as we all know, a false accusation has nearly as much power to upend a person’s life as a true one. And this opens the door to a host of evils. That woman refuse to sleep with you? Make an allegation! Some other woman get the promotion you thought of as “yours”? Turn her in! Freaked out by that trans man? Rape him, and then claim he aborted your child! And even if the victims do manage to clear themselves, it will involve a laborious process of allowing government agents to go through their cell phones, their financial data, their travel records, their medical histories — kind of like a tax audit on steroids. The fear and anxiety of that situation will enable a host of abuses, people willing to capitulate to inappropriate demands simply to avoid having their lives and the lives of their families torn apart.
Before Friday, I would have said this is a complex issue, but now I know it is not. Like so many other issues of our time — racism, gay rights, trans rights, immigration — it is, quite simply, about who gets to count as a human being. Nor is this about women alone. It is already clear that, in rejecting what had been settled legal doctrine, the Supreme Court of the United States is laying the groundwork to go after other fundamental rights, including gay rights, access to contraception, and even interracial marriage.
This is a sermon, not a rant, but I am struggling to connect this to the gospel. I am struggling because there are certain realities which are not congruent with the gospel of Christ. And if the Bible is consistent on any one thing, it’s that those realities are robust and resilient, creeping back into existence whenever people of good will fail to press against them.
This disjunction between the call of the Gospel and the realities of our world is clearly on display in our Scriptures today. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem to be arrested, condemned, and crucified. When he passes through Samaria, the people will not receive him; they are not open to the teachings of a prophet, preferring to salvage whatever comforts they can in their ordinary lives. As Jesus continues on, he has a number of interactions which demonstrate the radical nature of the call of God. He asserts that he is a man who has no place to lay his head — a person, in other words, without a true home, which to me, evokes the spiritual pain of a person who is deeply grounded in love, but surrounded by the broken systems of this world. Then he encounters a would-be disciple who wishes only to have enough time to bury his father. Jesus responds, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:60) It’s a stark order, a reminder that even the claims of family cannot be permitted to hold sway over the divine imperative. Jesus’ phrase, “the dead,” divides those who are open to the leadings of God from those who are not. It implies that there is point of no return. Indeed, he adds, “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62) The message is clear and uncompromising: for those who seek to follow Jesus, there will be a time of decision, a time when we need to place all in the balance.
We see that being acted out in the reading about Elijah and Elisha. This passage follows immediately upon the one about the prophet in the cave, hearing the whisper of God in the sound of sheer silence. God sends the prophet forth to upend the order of the world and replace it with the order of God, specifically, in this case, by changing the leadership of several neighboring nations. And if that is not audacious enough, Elijah also has to name a successor, Elisha son of Shaphat. He goes up to the unsuspecting man and throws his mantle upon him, and when Elisha realizes what has been done, he does something extraordinary: he burns his oxen and offers the meat to feed a crowd. He destroys his means of making a living, closing the door to a return to his old life, and signals his new vocation: feeding the people of God. Then, he follows Elijah.
My friends, we confront a world of challenges — a world troubled by oppressive economic systems, by overconsumption, by racism, by dangers to democracy —and it is our vocation as Christians, lay and ordained, to put it all on the line for Jesus. St. Paul writes, “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” (Gal 5:13) For too many years, Christian churches have understood self-indulgence in petty terms, as if all God meant us to do was refrain from eating too much chocolate or engaging in certain kinds of sexual experiences. But St. Paul continues, “through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Gal 5:13-14) Our work is to offer our lives for one another’s well-being, and the ultimate indulgence of self is to focus on our selves and our lives when other people’s freedom is on the line. For too long, the forces of evil — the forces which divide human beings from one another, which exploit and use the people of God for their own ends, the forces which are even now consuming and destroying the ecosphere which is our home — those forces have invested themselves deeply in perpetuating their self-interest, while people of goodwill have gestured gently in the naïve trust that Someone Else would ensure things worked out right.
And, in the eternal sense, it will. This world is God’s world, and in the end, every death will be followed by a resurrection. We who follow Christ are called to be people of hope, people who can hold out redemption and lean into beauty and trust that evil will not have the final word.
But in the immediate sense, there is no Someone Else. It’s you. Those of us who have promised to uphold the dignity of every human being have to get into the fray. We can no longer straddle the divide, leaning into our comfortable way of life while, occasionally, considering the possibility of deep discipleship. While we are sipping cups of tea, God’s people are being hurt. And the forces which have undone freedom in one place can learn to undo it in another. Inclusion and human rights are in retreat in many areas of the world, and only a foolish complacency would lead us to believe it could never happen here. Complacency is what got the U.S. into this pickle. We who are people of conviction must work for what we believe. We must organize and vote and march and form alliances and be as strategic as the people who wish to take our freedoms away. As William Sloane Coffin preached, “The world is [now] too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.”
My friends, “for freedom Christ has set [you] free. Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1)