Listening for Peace

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no healing balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? [If so] why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!

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In case you hadn’t noticed, there is a rainbow decal on our whiteboard sign out front. It was put there the end of May right after our council of elders, the Session, decided to display it in order to say in bright colors what we have been saying with words for years: all are welcome, including those who have been brutalized and rejected by the church Most of us here have no idea what it’s like to be mocked, ridiculed, condemned and denounced Sunday after Sunday in your own home church.

For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt. Is there no healing ointment in Gilead? Why has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my eyes were a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the wounded of my people!

On the first Sunday of June I announced the Session’s decision to display a rainbow on our sign and the reasons for it. After the service, a man who had been attending for a year or so told me that he, his wife and children, would not be attending this church any longer.

I was stunned.

Up until that minute I had assumed—as the Session elders had assumed—that everyone in this parish would be glad and proud for displaying what we thought was a universal symbol of peace and inclusion, nearly as benign as the wheelchair symbol for accessibility. Many Presbyterian and other churches all across this country sport large rainbow flags or banners above their front steps.

Given our reputation, I had been asked often why we didn’t fly such a flag. Well, to tell you the truth: I am not a fan of ostentation. Besides, it is not my decision to make. It belongs to the Session to decide such matters.

So when I saw a small rainbow decal, I said: yes, that’s us. It fits our introverted personality. And the Session agreed unanimously.

Boy, oh boy, were we wrong!

Over the summer I learned that more than a few persons felt blindsided, wounded and suddenly unwelcomed in this church. And that was a shock. And it hurt.

It hurts me when any member of this community is hurting. It hurts even more when I’ve had a hand in hurting them even if unintentionally.

For the hurt of my people I am hurt. Is there no healing ointment in Gilead?

As far as I can tell, none of those dissenting against the decal are opposed to our practice and policies of welcoming and including all people. None of them are threatening to leave if they don’t get their way. These are not mean-spirited people. They have been here faithfully through thick and thin.

When we “came out” as a church in February 2002 by ordaining Sally to the office of deacon against the majority opposition of the national Presbyterian Church, no one bolted from this church.

When we “came out” in April of 2011 with a LoveFest that publicly proclaimed our acceptance and celebration of GLBT persons, no one bolted.

When we “came out” in April of this year by blessing Richard and Donald’s marriage, no one bolted from this church.

We have “come out” step-by-step over 10 years with the support of virtually every single member even though some do not completely agree with all that’s said or done here.

Still, it’s no secret. We are—for lack of a better word—a progressive church. For heaven’s sake, we display the Muslim crescent along with the Jewish and Christian stars every Christmas in this arch. You don’t see that in too many churches! We are a progressive and inclusive church and have been so for a long while.

In September of 1862—151 years ago—this church hung yellow ribbons out front to signal that wounded confederate soldiers from the battle of Antietam were welcomed in this place. Here the wounded and dying would receive aid and comfort.

Today we take that for granted as if no one objected. Remember: even though this was Virginia—a confederate state at that time—this town and this church had many union sympathizers. But in that moment, that didn’t matter. It was time to set aside enmity and practice compassion.

It’s what happens when you listen to your heart.

For the hurt of my people I am hurt. I mourn.

In the 1990s, following a funeral service here, Bob Duffey, a beloved member and Elder of this church—and for me personally a father figure and mentor—walked into my office with a letter. The letter announced his resignation from this church because as he sat in the congregation while I stood here in this pulpit above the casket, he saw—as did several of his black friends—he saw, they saw a confederate flag tucked into the flowers on the casket.

Bob loved this church. But just like that he was outraged and ashamed to be identified with this church. He wanted out!

Bob assumed that the Session and I had given permission for that flag to be displayed. But we hadn’t. Just before that service began the mother of the deceased had slipped that flag onto the casket. I had not seen it.

Every summer as a child I had seen that flag when I visited my aunts, uncles and cousins in Georgia. That decal hung on their walls and on their cars. I never gave it much thought.

But suddenly in a state of shock with Bob’s letter in my hand, I was giving that flag much thought. I listened long and hard and learned for the first time the enormous negative power of that flag, especially for African Americans. In Bob’s mind that flag had negated everything this church had ever said about racial inclusion.

Symbols are more powerful than words.

If you want peace in this world, you must listen to those who differ from you. You must hold tension and conflict in your heart.

This summer I have spent hours listening to those who find the rainbow decal hurtful. Some see it as a form of bragging, of grandstanding and self-congratulation over against other churches in town who haven’t gotten round to displaying that symbol. Others see it as a “red line” since it appeared soon after the same-sex marriage blessing. The timing was a coincidence but for some it meant: if you have any reservations or doubts about same sex marriage, you are no longer welcomed in this place. Get out.

That was not the Session’s or my intentions. We truly aspire to welcome doubts and questions of all sorts. But we do fail from time to time—sometimes badly.

By far most Christians in the world have not accepted same sex marriage as legitimate. Many of us here are not there yet and may never get there. I certainly wasn’t there five years ago.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is undecided about same sex marriage and has asked each congregation to study and discuss it carefully. Later this fall we will do just that. Many of us need information and lots of time to listen and reflect. Please participate.

Years ago, I saw a father slap his child in public because the child had blurted out, I HATE YOU. With a hard slap the father knocked the child to the ground and said, don’t you ever talk to me like that!

Several years after that one of my children shouted to my face: I HATE YOU.

I winced, caught my breath and remembered what I’d seen years before. This was now my chance. I looked at my enraged child and said: That’s interesting. I sometimes feel that way too. Tell me why you hate me so much.

I sat down so we could be on the same eye level. And I listened.

For the hurt of my people I am hurt. Is there no healing balm in Gilead?

Yes, there is. Yes, there is a balm in Gilead that heals the broken hearts of people, nations, and communities. Yes, there is a healing balm and it’s called compassion. And it requires listening. And that means walking in another’s shoes for a while.

This summer I have learned much by listening. I have listened to those who are elated and to those who are dismayed.

And so I invite you to share your feelings with me privately if you’d like. Or, if you want to learn from others who may differ from you, I invite you to attend a “listening session,” Sunday, October 6 between services (9:30-10:15). It’s not a time for debate. It will be a time to hear what others feel when they see that decal and why they feel that way.

We have been through such times before. Conflicts in community are inevitable. Yes, we can force the lid down on disagreements and call it peace. But it is not peace. It’s shallow tranquility. A façade.

There are things about this church that none of us, including me, completely like. But when people are respected and their voices and views heard without ridicule, people learn to live with things they never thought they could. Respect is everything. And that, in part, means giving the other person the same benefit of the doubt you want for yourself.

If we want peace in the world, in our nation, in our families, in our lives and in our church, we must respect one another. Listening is respectful and listening is the way to peace.

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Make Me a Channel of Your Peace (St. Francis)