Spirituality, Art, and the Endless Possibilities of Love
Before the sermon is shared, we wanted our readers to know that this is how we responded as a gathered congregation to the news of terrorist attacks in Paris. Dr. Farmer mentioned seven pieces to a complex puzzle for which there are many more pieces after which we read the psalm created from notes of concern sent to the Pastor by three parishioners:
Pieces of a Puzzle of Response to the Terrorist Attacks on Paris
1. On purely humanitarian bases, we mourn the loss of innocent lives and support in whatever ways we can those who are bereaved.
2. We hold in our prayers and positive thoughts those who were attacked and whose lives hang in the balances still, at this very moment.
3. We refuse to allow our ponderings about the attacks in Paris to merge murkily in our minds with similar situations, as if to minimize the horrors of what happened even though similar kinds of attacks are known to us. This is its own event, and those killed and maimed are not added to an anonymous list of ALL people who have been attacked by terrorists in recent months or years.
4. That said, we still try to look at the big picture and become actively involved in participating in movements that exist to counter terrorism.
5. We make sure our prayers do not cloud the complexities of the situation—either by asking that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven or by implying that God could have prevented these attacks if God had so chosen.
6. We clear up our lazy theologies and hold to the undeniable truth that God is never the instigator of violence or terrorism in spite of the fact that literally read scriptures of monotheists caste God is such a light.
7. Finally, we do something concrete—thinking and praying alone can mean very little, and often do. Perhaps if we write a letter to someone in Paris who took action against the terrorists or someone who participated in caring for the victims, that would be good—even though the letter is likely to get lost in a mountain of others. Or maybe we could make a financial contribution, however modest, to an agency that will be caring—physically and emotionally--for survivors and families whose loved ones didn’t survive. We will pray, but our response isn’t complete until we have put wings to our prayers.
Responsorial Psalm (from words in notes to the Pastor from Judy Butler, Bob George, and Brent Grant)
One: The very thought of taking actions, which destroy lives of defenseless people brings us to the point of wondering if we have a grasp of the true situation across the world.
Many: So very senseless.
One: At one level this is a random act of violence from extreme Muslims who hate the west.
Many: So cruel.
One: Broken hearts, everywhere.
Many: So pointless.
ALL: We are all Parisians, are we not?
Now, the Sermon: "Spirituality, Art, and the Endless Possibilities of Love"
It’s not just that Trina Gardner’s painting on which we build our spirituality focus today is a lovely work of art; it’s that her artist’s eye focused in on the scene that became her subject matter and treated it as worthy of preserving. Thank you, Trina!
Do individual Silversiders pool their concerns and creativity to create the unique whole we call our spirituality center, or does our church influence individuals in our fold to go out and use their talents in ways that express the concerns the community affirms?
While I’d like to think it’s the preaching that inspires the implementation of Silverside’s values beyond the walls of the church (and of course I think this ONLY in ways that are totally non-self-aggrandizing!!!), the fact of the matter is that the church became what it is primarily because amazing individuals brought their courage and commitments with them when they joined and, thereby, participated in the weaving process that resulted in the tapestry we call Silverside Church. Our tapestry remains an unfinished masterpiece, and with some regularity it goes back onto the loom while some new strands of color and texture are woven into what we already have.
Certainly our members continue to be inspired by what they experience in community here, motivating them to spread some Silverside around in places where unconditional-love-light and social-justice-light need to shine--from the highest courts in the land to individual homes where a family member is tormented; from a high profile march through some of Wilmington’s most dangerous neighborhoods to the insistence on the highest of ethical norms in a secretive business deal that could easily get pushed through on a non-ethical level without being found out. But we look to members, long-timers and newbies alike, to keep bringing their ideals and aspirations for a better local society and a better world into the mix that exists at the moment.
I don’t know who encouraged Trinia to affirm same-gender love relationships, and I didn’t ask her (yet). She inherited Presbyterianism and psychiatry, a fact that doesn’t necessarily help us pinpoint where her values grew. (Trina’s late father was a highly regarded psychiatrist, if you didn’t know. And if preachers’ kids have a hard way to go, I can’t believe the kids of psychiatrists have easy rows to hoe either!) I’m kidding about this. Certainly, there are Presbyterians and psychiatrists (and Presbyterian psychiatrists!) who are accepting and those who are not accepting of those who march to the beat of a drummer societies at large seem unable to hear.
Artistic types are generally more liberal in their acceptance of others, don’t you think? Without stereotyping, that has been my experience. Another sermon. OK.
The subject matter of Trina’s painting alone is a statement, even if the painting itself weren’t as remarkable as it is. Trinia was in Rehoboth not too long after same-gender marriages became legal in the state of Delaware when, out on the beach, she happened to see a gay couple just after their wedding.
The two men are nicely dressed [which may be a superfluous comment ;)]. We see them from the back of their heads; we don’t see their faces. One of them has gray hair, suggesting that these men had waited a long time to get to solemnize their love vows as straight people routinely get to do. Each has one arm around the other, and they are looking out toward the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. Nothing is in sight except the water and the sky. Trina imagined that they were pondering the endless possibilities of love. That’s the message of her painting, and it’s a message that pertains to all people, regardless of sexual orientation.
There are plenty of bigots out there, and one is too many, who hate homosexuals so much that they think there can be nothing more than promiscuous sexual activity going on when partners who are not heterosexual are involved. Most of these bigots in the United States go to church--some to Westboro Baptist Church, most to more savvy and sophisticated, though nonetheless hate mongering, churches.
Sophisticated bigots dress up well. They may wear the most fashionable suits to church or to work in their Capitol Hill Senate offices and news writing offices at Fox News. They may wear the most elegant evening gowns and tuxes to lavish “true Christian” galas where money is being raised to crush LGBTQ citizens. Not all bigots are as overtly crass as Westboro Baptist Church types, but they are just as bigoted.
As the subject for today’s sermon mingled in my consciousness yesterday alongside the unfolding news about the attacks on Paris on Friday evening, the two broad topics began to intersect, whether justifiably or not I am unable to ascertain. Still, I began to wonder what the world would be like if nobody tried to tell anybody whom she or he should love. Not religious groups; not ethnic groups; not Bobby Jindal and racist Louisiana justices of the peace; not Pope Francis’s BFF, Kim Davis.
As far back as anyone knows, two people, each from rival clans or nations or religious groups who famously despised one another, fell in love anyway--not infrequently for life. Who was right? The naysayers or those who took the risk of letting their love prevail?
- The Capulets and the Montagues or Romeo and Juliet?
- Senator Keeley in the film, “The Birdcage,” or his daughter, Barbara, and her straight fiance, Val, who happens to be the son of a gay cabaret owner connected in love to a drag queen?
- The untold numbers of Roman Catholic priests who have told an incalculable number of parishioners wanting to marry Protestants that taking such a step would be utterly shameful and thus forbidden AND the untold number of Protestant pastors who have told an incalculable number of parishioners wanting to marry Catholics that taking such a step would be utterly shameful OR the young couples who said their love for each other was stronger than what any church or clergyperson had to say on the subject and acted accordingly?
- The anti-Jewish Palestinians and the anti-Palestinian Israelis or the young Palestinian guy whose parents have taught him literally to hate all Jews who falls in love with the daughter of the Israeli politician who has made his mark and his money hating all Palestinians?
- Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy who wrote the Court’s majority opinion on the matter of the constitutionality of equality of marital rights for homosexual citizens as for heterosexual citizens or Supreme Court Justice Alito who wrote the dissenting opinion on that historic vote?
It’s really tedious to argue with someone who thinks the Bible--meaning the Judeo-Christian scriptures--has a perspective on marriage that has anything at all to do with what modern marriage means in the United States. The biblical writers wrote a lot about love--not often romantic love, but love wasn’t a requirement in cultures where polygamy and arranged marriage were practiced; sometimes love happened, but almost no one as far as I can tell expected it.
Men who signed on dotted lines for as many wives as they could provide for had the obligation of taking good care of their human property including any offspring that eventuated from the various unions; adultery didn’t mean having sex outside marriage per se, but rather having sex with another man’s property--thus reducing her value to someone who had paid good money for unused goods. The “good wife” obeyed her husband--that is, her owner; conceived consistently; produced children, preferably males; and took good care of those children. If she happened to be his first wife, she might--should he do well financially--get her own maid or maids to help with anything she didn’t want to do or couldn’t do such as get pregnant by the master of the house. But nothing extra special was guaranteed or expected.
I think a lifelong, monogamous love-commitment to one’s soulmate as the true meaning of marriage, idealized in our culture, is a beautiful thing, a wonderful thing, but that isn’t based on a biblical model. The Bible knows nothing about a required monogamous marital commitment; in fact, it knows very little about male monogamy at all since men could have as many wives as they could afford, as I’ve said. Women couldn’t have more than one husband, and most often shared a husband with his other wives and legal concubines.
I am NOT pushing for polygamy, and I'm not trying in any way to diminish the value of meaningful monogamy for those who choose it. Monogamy is not for everyone, and those who believe that they can force someone into a monogamous frame of mind by any means including vows are living outside the realm of reality.
When love grips two people so powerfully that there is simply no room for anyone else, ever--that is the most powerful human bond I have ever witnessed. Monogamy, with or without marital vows, happens not because of any law or expectation but because of the depth of the love the two people share. If this kind of relentless love happens, and there is no guarantee that every loving couple will experience love at this depth, it certainly will not have occurred because someone planned for it, hoped for it, or refused to settle for anything less. As Blaise Pascal put it, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”
We also cannot control who the other will be if and when this kind of love grips us. It may come over us when we're in the presence of someone with whom we don't even want to be in love, at least at that moment.
Who can say, then, that one person may not fall in love with another person who is of the same gender? Of course no one can say that, and no one should try. There should never have been any legalization of accepted or acceptable marriage partners provided neither was underage, and no one was otherwise hurt or exploited.
If a woman loves a woman instead of a man and is loved intensely by her, then who in the name of compassion as well as common sense would want to stop that or interfere with it in any way? And if a man loves a man instead of a woman--and I think I just laid the groundwork for a fabulous country song!--who would want to keep those two people from celebrating their love to the fullest unless it would be some envious someone whose cold heart had never known true love?
A reading from the Bible, the book of Second Samuel, chapter 1:
David [who would become King David, the King Israel would remember as its greatest king] intoned this lamentation over Saul and Saul’s son, Jonathan: “Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”
When I was a pastor in Baltimore, the church I served was dealing with the unfortunate fallout of having the church leadership say formally, “Gay Is OK!” Essentially, that had been the prevailing attitude, or I’d never have agreed to become their pastor; but, when a member of the staff was “outed,” though sexual orientation and long-time monogamous love partner had never been denied or hidden, the leadership folks had to step up to the plate and “say it loud, say it clear”: “Gay IS OK! And we love, support, and express profound gratitude to our staff person who serves us faithfully, above and beyond the call of duty, and who is as committed as any of us--perhaps more than most of us--to the teachings of Jesus.”
One of our active members--a 30-something, not an oldster as some might have expected--was very unhappy with the position taken by the leadership of the church. He didn’t really understand the ways liberal-ish churches work; so he came to me as the pastor thinking I actually could veto the lay leadership if I wanted to. After I got over my robust laughter at the assumption that the pastor of University Church actually had power, he got very serious.
I loved this young man and his wife and their beautiful little daughter and son. He said that the thought of homosexual sex made him sick; and, of course, there’s an easy fix for that. More seriously, though, he said he was very angry at homosexuals who only hurt people with their ridiculous choices to do “gay stuff.”
I asked him why he chose to do “straight stuff.” He said, “I know where you’re going with that question so I refuse to dignify it with a response.”
We talked on, and we felt safe in our trust of each other, I think. He finally told me--and I’m not suggesting this should have undone his right to hold whatever view of gay love relationships he wished to hold--that his cousin had died from AIDS at a very young age. How tragic! He also said he had loved that cousin like a brother, and he would always be angry at the cousin for getting AIDS in the first place, for dying on him when he should still be living and enjoying life, and for bringing shame on the family because of his homosexual choices. He wept; then I wept. The reasons for our tears overlapped only a little bit, but we both wept.
He no doubt was shedding tears because the grief of having lost his cousin would never leave him, regardless of how much he wanted to replace the grief with anger. And I shed tears for a host of intermingled reasons not the least of which was my memory of one of my church members in New Orleans who died from complications related to AIDS. That painful pastoral experience came to me several times in that church and in the Baltimore church, but the person I remembered particularly that day was a special friend of mine, a deacon in our church, and a marvelous singer in our choir.
The love of his life had died several years before he did, before I had arrived in New Orleans to pastor St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church. Ed’s true love had died from what almost certainly was AIDS before it had a name.
He never got over the loss of his soulmate. He more or less closed down that part of his heart, that part of his life. He had come to New Orleans many years earlier from rural Alabama to explore his sexuality. Having found his true identity, what happened in New Orleans stayed in New Orleans; he didn’t tell his family back in Alabama what he discovered about himself in the City that Care Forgot.
In time, the effects of full-blown AIDS took over Ed's body too. With only weeks to live he called his brothers and his mother from Alabama to his bedside in the New Orleans East Hospital; he told them all he was gay, that he had always been gay, and that the “roommate” who had died many years before had never been just a roommate. The brothers walked away in disdain for their dying brother who at the age of about 50 was leaving this world way too soon. His mother stuck by his side; she did not like what she heard, but she waited until after his death to try to deal with it. As long as he had breath she was at his side.
When the funeral rolled around our sanctuary at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church was absolutely packed on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday afternoon. Ed had loved Jesus, and because of that he loved those that not many people wanted to have to worry about. He had touched lives, for example, as an educator, called by God he believed to try to educate children in dangerous places in New Orleans where most educators would not go regardless of pay. He stuck with those students and their families; he hoped for them. He thought better of their situations; he dreamed of brighter futures for all of them than they knew how to dream for themselves. Some bit. And they cried their eyes out with the rest of us when we gathered to say our earthly goodbyes to God’s beloved child, Ed Broussard.
On the family pew, however, there were too many vacancies. I truly do not remember the precise details, but I think that one brother might have been there to support the mother; the others remained in Alabama as I recall, allowing their hatred of their own flesh and blood to displace love and acceptance because he told them the simple truth about one aspect of his life. They would not permit him, with their “approval,” to love himself or to claim love for the one person he had loved with his whole heart--even as he slipped out of this world.
If the two men could have lived on for a few years, perhaps they could have been the two men in Trina’s painting looking out into a bright future because of the endless possibilities of love. Though that did not happen, they nonetheless put a stepping stone in the long walkway that led from hatred of same gender couples, finally, to hope.