My public high school was founded in 1964 as a progressive experiment, but when I came along in 1978, a backlash was beginning. The start of my freshman year was pushed back a few days, because of a teacher’s strike, and that kind of set the tone for the fall. We had a new principal, who’d come in from out of state with a Ph.D., a hard-nosed reputation, and two hand–picked vice-principals. I remember being troubled at the year-opening class assembly when one of those vice-principals made a joke about executing troublemakers by firing squad—nobody laughed. But if I thought the new administrators were scary and mean, my two older brothers, who had enjoyed the rights and privileges of the old regime, decided they were evil.
All their abundance of adolescent rebellion and self-righteousness found a focus, and they gave themselves without restraint to a kind of insurrection against the principal. I admired my big brothers like everybody does, and there was something a little thrilling about having a ringside seat, but while they were working on their obscene underground papers and satirical comic strips, and serving their suspensions, I was quietly enjoying Latin, Geometry, and Biology, and the novelty of being academically-challenged for the first time in my life.
It all kind of came to a head one winter afternoon, as I was walking down the main corridor, and as I approached the school office, I became aware of a commotion. There was a buzz of excited conversation among the students that passed by, and the hallway ahead was half-blocked by students and adults standing in a knot. When I came to the center of the hubbub there were my brothers and three or four of their friends holding a “sit-in” outside the principal’s office. Some student council types and a couple of teachers were remonstrating with them to be reasonable and get up of the floor. One of the vice-principals was hovering darkly nearby, and I could see the other inside the office, no doubt conferring with the principal.
When the demonstrators saw me their faces brightened. “Hey Dan—” one of them said amiably, as if he were inviting me to go get an ice-cream, “—we’re protesting. You should join us.” I turned red, muttered something, and hurried away. But I’ve never forgotten the emotions of that moment. I was afraid, of the disapproval of my brothers and their friends, but also of the wrath of the school authorities and the disdain of the student body at large. I was ashamed, for being cowardly and disloyal, but also for being called out in public as a potential participant in the demonstration. And on top of it all, I was embarrassed and angry and tired of all the drama. It was the moment when I realized that I’d lost faith in the revolution.
This week, as you may already know, is the 50th anniversary of a climactic moment in another kind of protest movement, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Our nation will commemorate this event as a proud moment of our common history, but at the time many people, including many Christians, felt about it and about the whole Civil Rights movement the way that I felt about that sit-in outside the principal’s office—frightened, ashamed, embarrassed and angry. It was a movement that sprang, not out of the hedonistic youth culture of the 1970s, but out of the culture of the black churches in the Deep South. Its leaders were men and women steeped, not in the lyrics of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, but in the words of the Bible. They were leaders who knew by heart the word that had been revealed to the Hebrew prophets, and who saw that Word as a power in the world that is greater than any political system, or ideology of racial discrimination, because it is the Word of God and because it is true.
The word of God to the prophets was a word that sent them to places they weren’t wanted, to say things people didn’t want to hear. It is the kind of word that sits in the corridor outside the principal’s office, or at the segregated lunch counter at Woolworth’s. It is the kind of word that goes to Washington, D.C. and stands on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and says that Lincoln’s work is not finished, and demands the equality and freedom that are still denied. We should be careful not to be romantic about protest movements, as if protest alone is enough to transform injustice. But as Christians we also cannot dismiss protest out of hand, simply because we don’t like what the protesters are saying, or because they are in places where we think they shouldn’t be.
A story like today’s gospel lesson from Luke of Jesus defying the synagogue leaders and healing on the Sabbath, has traditionally been read as an episode of religious conflict; Jesus heals the woman who is bent double on the Sabbath in order to strike a blow for a religion of grace and compassion against the cold-hearted and legalistic religion of the Jews. Many contemporary scholars will say that this account must be the invention of a later time, because Jesus was a Jew, and because the Jewish rabbis never interpreted their laws about the Sabbath so rigidly as that. Instead of an authentic story about Jesus, they say, this must be anti-Jewish polemic from a Christian community that had separated itself from the synagogue.
But what if what if this healing is not a protest against Sabbath laws, or against the synagogue itself, but against its leaders? Those leaders are fine having Jesus there as long as he limits himself to talking about religion. But when he shows what religion is actually for, they are not so fine. When he demonstrates the power of the living God to lift the burden of oppression from a suffering human being, so she can stand up to her full height for the first time in 18 years, suddenly Jesus is contesting control of their space. It’s a space where the people are supposed to come for consolation in their sorrows, and the solace that helps them get through another week. But now Jesus is there showing the people that what God really wants to do is act, to set them free.
The communities that call themselves Christian can also be like that synagogue, spaces whose leaders kindly encourage the people to bend, without complaint, under the weight of social control. But the collect that we prayed at the beginning of this service asked that we might show all peoples not the power of the state, or the power of the market, or the power of the church, but the power of God. And that usually involves conflict.
It takes resolve, and courage, but it also requires discernment. Today’s collect also says that what will enable us to show God’s power is when we ourselves are gathered together in unity by the Holy Spirit. When the 2003 and 2006 General Conventions said that LGBT people belong in every part of our church, even on our bishop’s thrones and walking down our aisles to have their covenants blessed before our altars, St. John’s, Petaluma left the Episcopal Church in protest. But a few people began their own protest against that protest, but not for the sake of protest. They resolved to continue St. John’s Episcopal because they discerned that in overcoming traditional prejudices against LGBT persons the Episcopal Church was acting to show the power of God among all peoples, for the glory of God. And it was doing it in a spirit of unity.
God’s spirit of unity doesn’t always look like unity at first, because it is not the same as unanimity. The Episcopal Church took prophetic action even as it recognized there were many who disagreed. But it did so in the hope that, if could just stay together, we could get through the pain of the conflict, and a time would come when we would look back and know that God had been stirring us up for the sake of a greater unity. And now it does feel like we are moving in that direction. Which is a blessing, but we need to remember that we would never have gotten here without LGBT individuals and organizations in the church that went where they were not wanted, and said what they weren’t supposed to. And when we look around the world and ask where among the peoples the power of God still needs to show forth, we should keep in mind that the answer to that question might be coming from the person we wish would go away, the one who keeps saying the things we don’t want to hear.