A few days ago I had the honor of presiding at a funeral for a 95-year-old woman. Her name was Catherine, and I did not know her apart from one visit I had with her just before she died. Presiding at a funeral, for me anyway, is a difficult task. What am I going to say? What words of comfort can I be to those grieving? This was made all the more difficult because I did not know Catherine.
Catherine was born in 1923 that made her 96 years old. Her mother was a terrified 14-year-old girl, and she was given up for adoption right after her birth. She never knew her birth family, and she was never adopted. As was the rule at the time, she was given a new set of clothes and a little money on her 18th birthday and shown the door. She was thrown out of the only home she had ever known, she had no education, she could not read or write, and she had no skills other than her ability to care for children. She went door to door asking if she might care for the children until she came upon a family that took her in. Catherine was an amazing woman.
I sat there during the funeral as two of Catherine’s “children” rose to speak to the close to 100 people that had gathered for her funeral. They talked about this woman with warm, loving words that made me sad I did not get a chance to meet the real Catherine and not the frail, old, worn woman that I had met a few days before. She was full of life and love and, in the end, had a larger family than anyone could have ever hoped for.
While I was listening to the words spoken, I got to thinking about what people would have to say about me at my funeral. I decided, at that moment, that I was going to write my own eulogy. I am not going to leave it to chance for someone else to do.
But I sat there listening and wondering, what have I done with my life? Have I lived true to my calling from God to speak for those who have no voice, to advocate for those who have no one to advocate for them? Did I genuinely love everyone as equals, did I love myself, and did I genuinely love my God? I am often asked and sometimes criticized when I speak about current events and that I preach about love too much. Yes, I am criticized for this believe it or not. But while I was sitting in the funeral home, surrounded by the friends and family of Catherine, I knew I was on the right track.
Last week, a 19-year-old man walked into a Synagogue in Southern California and started shooting. Worshippers had gathered for their weekly service, much like we are doing now and were praying and singing when he walked in. One person was killed when she jumped in front of the rabbi and literally “took a bullet for him.” These types of shootings have become common here in the United States. While we fiddle or time away being afraid of an imaginary threat coming across the border, white men with guns are blowing people away at an alarming rate.
But what is more alarming than that, if that is not enough, is that this young man, just the week before was sitting in a pew, in a Christian church and it was in that Church that he was radicalized.
The shooter belongs to a church that is part of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a small breakaway group from the larger Presbyterian Church here in the United States because the larger group was not Orthodox enough. This Church, founded to combat the spread of liberal theology in the 1930s is rooted in the Calvinist belief of Predestination. In short, you are predestined before your birth, whether you are to get into heaven or not. You don’t know if you are or you are not, and you cannot change your position.
In 1993 they petitioned the President of the United States to disallow gay people in the military. The petition included this statement, “homosexuality is a reproach to any nation. It undermines the family, and poses a substantial threat to the general health, safety, and welfare of our citizens.” The 68th General Assembly declared that women serving in combat positions in the military were contrary to the biblical role of women. In 2007, the Church released a doctrinal statement that although the Church should do everything within its power to help immigrants, they must first repent of their “illegal” status. The Church does not ordain women to serve in any leadership capacity. By the way, the Church across the country is majority white. All of this, by the way, is buried deep within the pages of their website.
Now I am not one who usually criticizes other churches for their beliefs; however, when your Church believes that gays, immigrants, women, and people of color are less than, we have a problem. Part of the preaching includes blaming the Jews of the death of Jesus. When we dehumanize people when we treat them as less than it makes people believe it is okay to treat them not as humans, but as something else. Ideas like this are what led people to think it was okay for one human being to own another, why, because they were property and not human. It is what led people to believe that Jews were responsible for all of their problems and therefore the “final solution” was okay, and they simply looked the other way. And it is theology like this that leads a 19-year-old man to walk into a place of worship and start shooting. This young man was radicalized in his Church because the Church never spoke out for those who had no voice. It is young men like him, and all the rest that force me to speak out. This was not the sermon I had planned for today.
By the way, that liberal theology they were trying to combat; equal rights of all humans, feeding the hungry, peace over war, creation of housing for the homeless, integration of schools, civil rights, women’s suffrage all of those horrid liberal ideas.
And that brings me to today’s Gospel. As I read over this passage this week, I came up with at least four different sermons. There is one on seeing Jesus in others. Another on the abundance of God’s grace and love. Another of the three great loves, love God, love neighbor, love self. There is one on feeding the people of God. And the final one, forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation. Any of these would preach, and I just wonder how different the situation would have been last week in Southern California if that young man had heard anyone of those sermons.
I want us to look at the dialogue between Peter and Jesus that begins in verse 15. We spend a lot of time focusing on the miracle of the catch of fish, but we ignore the miracle that takes place here at the end of the passage. There is no doubt in my mind that Peter has some lingering confusion about his denial of Jesus. I am sure there is a little guilt lingering in the recesses of his mind, and it has caused him pain and caused him to doubt. Jesus questioning of Peter must make that all the worse. Jesus asks Peter not once, not twice, but three times if Peter loves him and each time Peter answers yes. When Jesus asks Peter the third time, scripture tells us that Peter was hurt, but he did not realize what was happening, Jesus was forgiving Peter. Peter denied Jesus three times; Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him and Peter’s response was yes, each time. After each yes Jesus tells Peter, feed my lambs, care for my sheep, feed my lambs. In other words, Peter, I forgive you now go and do my work. Peter was not perfect; none of the Apostles were perfect. They all made mistakes, I have made mistakes, but when God speaks to me he tells me I am forgiven; now go and do my work.
I believe that God has called me and given me a voice to speak out against hatred in all its forms. I am here today and every day that you will have me to preach the good news that God loves everyone and we are to love everyone no matter what they look like or where they worship. If your Church, if your preacher teaches that it is okay to think of another person as less than, then very simply, you need to find another Church. Jesus was murdered because he welcomed all to the table. Jesus was killed because he loved all without condition. Jesus was killed because he made the religious leaders look bad because of the way they were treating the other.
I will not let myself be silenced. I will continue to shout from the rooftops if I have too. I will continue to strive to show God’s love to others and to tell them that God loves them just the way they are and that God welcomes them to the table. I have been an outcast, I have had backs turned on me, I have been told I am not worthy, I know how it feels, and if I can prevent just one person from doing what was done last week, then it was all worth it.