Bishop Gene Robinson at Vanderbilt
After all that, I'm left a little drained, and don't feel like commenting on it. I've never read anything by Robinson to compare with this in length, and I don't think he improves on greater acquaintance. I'll leave it to anyone who's got the stamina to plough through this whole speech to make any comments on his theology - it seemed a bit thin to me, especially the "We're all going to Heaven" stuff. But I'll just say that this should answer once and for all those well-meaning people who say, "If he'd only resign, then a big part of our troubles would be over!" First of all, the troubles wouldn't be over - he's just a symptom of a big, ugly disease that's eating Episcopalianism alive from the inside out. (And not the smallest part of the disease is that someone with this shallow mind and understanding could be made a BISHOP.) But also, he'll NEVER resign. All you need to know is in this little segment:
And I tell you, the greatest blessing of this last 3 and a half years is that God has seemed so close. Prayer sometimes seems redundant…God is so right there. Now, how can you regret something like that? People say, ‘If you had to do this all over again, would you do it?’ Well, my God, of course! Because look at what it’s done in terms of my relationship with God!You see, it's all about HIM, and what a mind-blowing experience this has been for HIM. It is better that the people die for one man, and the nation perish.
MC: Bishop Robinson is a graduate of the University of the South, but we promise not to hold that against him, and at the General Theological Seminary, and we promise not to hold that against him! His years in the priesthood established him as a wise and compassionate leader, and an advocate for justice, and this is demonstrated by his involvement on issues including emerging wellness, youth ministry, AIDS ministries, debt relief for impoverished nations, and many health insurance boards assessments. No doubt his investiture as the ninth bishop of New Hampshire in 2004 was a recognition of his gifts and his commitments. And as we all know, that even has placed him at the center of a firestorm. Yet through it all, Bishop Robinson has remained steadfast in his compassionate and prophetic witness. He said recently, according to CNN, “If you want to know my homosexual agenda, it’s Jesus. And I would propose to you that people’s coming out, gay and lesbian folk being honest about who they are, what their lives are, what their families are like, and their desire to contribute to this culture, to serve in the military, to take their place as full citizens of this country, is God at work.” Please join me in welcoming Bishop Robinson, who will speak to you about Ministry in the Eye of the Storm. (applause)
(Some opening conversation with the audience, who had trouble seeing him.)
Bishop Gene Robinson:
I want you to go home and tell people that I have a Bible in my hand! I asked for a leather coat with a zipper, but… It is my great privilege to be here today, this is really really terrific. I have to tell you, it is a very great honour to have the bishop who confirmed me Easter Day when I was in senior year at Sewanee, here in the audience. He’s either to blame or congratulate, depending on where you come out on this controversy.
I wanted in particular to address my remarks to those of you who are studying for the ordained ministry, but also what I have to say will pertain, I hope, to all people of faith. This is a very daunting and intimidating group, and I always find myself thinking what I could I possibly say that would [inaudible] and possibly help. And so I have 5 things to say to all of you who take seriously your ministries in the name of our Jesus, or your ministries in the name of God, even if you have not come to know God through Jesus. And I wanted to talk about 3 passages of Scripture. And somehow get through all of this and still have time for your questions. I stopped assuming a long time ago that I knew why people showed up for something, and learned that it’s better just to ask them why they came and what they wanted to know. Let me just begin with this:
The first thing I want to say to all of you is that I think the most important thing you can learn, whether it’s in seminary or in life, is to learn to tell the story of your own salvation. And I want to read to you the passage that I read to all the candidates in our ordination classes, and I tell them that above and beyond everything else, this is what I want to hear from you.
I want to hear from you, in your own words, the story that’s recounted in the 6th chapter of Isaiah:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory."
4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
5 "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for."
8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"
And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"
It seems to me that story contains all of the elements of the call to ministry that all of us know by virtue of our baptism. First of all, if you were coming through my ordination process, I’d wonder about, “So what’s your vision of God?” It may not involve odd things like seraphim and cherubim, with various and sundry wings, and so on, but what is it? What is that vision of God for you? And if we mean to be effective witnesses in the world, we need words, we need language around which to describe that vision of holiness that we hold.
And then, I want to know about your experience of saying “Woe is me! I am a person of unclean lips!” In contrast to this vision of holiness, what is your own sense of humility?
I’ve learned in AA that the best definition of humility is being right-sized. That is, not do not include who you are and what your gifts are, but understanding where you are in relationship to this ultimate goodness. And faced with that ultimate goodness, can any of us say anything but, ‘Woe is me! I am so unworthy, given that vision of goodness.’ And Isaiah says I understand I come of a people of unclean lips – that is to say, we’re all in this together. How dare any of us judge one another, when in fact we are all a people of unclean lips. And then God does this astounding thing: a live coal is taken and is touched to the lips of this person, and his sin is taken away.
I want to know from you, your experience of being saved by God. Being loved despite everything you are in your failings and your shortcomings. I want you to be able to tell me in what sense you have been saved. I know I sound like I’m coming back to my Kentucky evangelical roots, here, but it’s real. It’s true. How were you saved? And then what did you do about it?
I hate that last part. You know, that first part, it seems to me that sometimes the great divide in religions is that some people stop right there. As long as I’m right with God, as long as I have a sense of my own personal salvation, then that’s enough. But that’s not enough, not according to this account. Because God is always then saying, “Oh yeah, and by the way, who will go for us? Whom shall I send?” And so I want to know what risks you have taken for the gospel?
I tell my clergy, that I expect them to get into gospel trouble – that is the ditch I will die in for them. If they are in trouble because they are preaching the gospel, then I’m their guy. And I also say to them, if you’re not in trouble, are you sure you’re preaching the gospel? Because Jesus was always in trouble, so if you’re moving along without causing too much of a disturbance, then ask yourself if you’re really preaching the gospel? It seems to me that the only story we have to tell is the story of how the God of all creation cared enough to save me and save the world – it’s the only story we have to tell. And if your theological education isn’t preparing you to tell that story, go somewhere else. So much can be in our heads, and what is really called from us is to be called to stand up and tell the story – of whether you are the kid on the street, or the kid from the wealthy suburbs. You’ve got to be able to stay how God has acted in your life. Once you’ve told your story, leave it to God to do the rest. You don’t have to do anything else but witness what God has done for you, and you don’t have tell anyone else what God is to do for them.
Second of all, I think we should take the Scriptures back from those who are abusing them (applause).
I think in the South, people are abusing them, and in the North, you’ve got people who just don’t care. Either way, it’s an abuse. And the only way we can take those Scriptures back is to make them our own. There’s that wonderful word – I think it’s Greek… Mercifully, I became a priest during that brief time when you didn’t have to take Greek (thank you, Jesus!). And I think this is a Greek word: anathesis? It’s the word that’s used at Passover, and it’s also a word we use about the eucharist. And it means that you take a past event, and you so dramatically bring it into the present, that it becomes a present event. Not just a remembrance of the, but it literally comes into the present moment and becomes effective there. It’s time that we reclaim those stories.
This is especially important for gay and lesbian people, who have been told for countless generations that we only appear in Scripture in about 7 places and they’re all bad. But you know, I find myself in Scripture all over the place. The Exodus story one of the greatest coming-out stories in the history of the world. Literally. Use whatever prison you find yourself in, but gay and lesbian people we know what it’s like to be in slavery, to be worth nothing more than slavery. And we know what it’s like to have a Moses show up and say, “You know what? They’re wrong. You deserve to be free from slavery. God has in mind for you a promised land in mind for you beyond anything you have ever known.
Some of us have been courageous enough to follow. And then we get to the Red Sea, and we expect it to be like Cecil B. DeMille, and it opens up, and there will be a nice, dry path to cross. What I find is, when you get to the Red Sea, it only parts enough for one footfall. And once you’ve taken that, and it parts enough for the next footfall, and so on and so forth.
You don’t get to see the other side before you start have to start crossing. You have to put your foot down, and assume it won’t be mud but it’ll be dry, and then put another foot and then another. And then, all along you thought that when we got to the other side what would be there? We thought we’d get to the other side and the world would be there for you? Hello? It won’t be! And so you find yourself in a desert; and this is a very special place, because it’s where you become really dependent upon God. And the manna may taste like wet, soggy cardboard, but it teaches you about being dependent upon God for your very life.
I can remember, being separated from my wife, and there was just this incredibly dark time. I felt so close to the ancient Hebrews. Because I literally didn’t know if I could make it through each day. And I would go to bed at night, and all that I would have was my integrity and God. And what I learned was, that’s just enough. I wouldn’t want to go through my whole life with only that, and by God’s grace, I have so much more than that, but it’s pretty nice to know that if you’ve only just got that much, it’s enough.
And so, you can wander for a long time, putting it all together, before you make it to the Promised Land. Ultimately, I don’t think we can get to the Promised Land until we get to Heaven. And that’s why Abraham had to learn the [inaudible]. And while [inaudible] was sitting with firm foundations. That’s the great thing about a city tied down with all the answers, but we’re just not meant to live there. We’re meant to be wandering around; we’re meant to learn that the journey is the destination, and that in the end God will bring us to heaven.
It’s an amazing coming out story. But we’re all coming out from something, aren’t we? We’re all children trying to find our way home. And we have to make the Scriptures our own. You have to find yourself in the scriptures, and then let them inform that story you’ve learned to tell about your own salvation.
Thirdly, I’d say we’ve got to pay attention to the people Jesus paid attention to.
Just this last Holy Week, at least in our church, we’ve changed the name of Palm Sunday to the Sunday of the Passion. Which I think is our admitting that very few people come to church during Holy Week anyway, so we’ve got to pack it all into that Sunday. It’s not too bad, because there’s enough material in that week for the whole year.
But what occurred to me what that we so often separate Jesus’s death from Jesus’s whole life, and what Jesus was passionate about. And that if we are to be followers of his, we have to become passionate about the people and things Jesus was passionate about. Because he was killed because of what he was passionate about.
I will read the verses in Isaiah 61 ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, [and has come] upon me to bring good news to the poor; to bind up the brokenhearted, to release those who are in prison, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’. The words that Jesus read in his own hometown synagogue (and by the way, they wanted to throw him off the cliff, if you’ll remember). These are the people that Jesus cared about. Jesus was always about releasing people from prisons. Think of the prison of leprosy – that terrifying disease of Jesus’s time. Nobody knew what caused it, they assumed physical contact was what did it, you had to leave your home and family and children, and go live in a cemetery or a cave, and yell out “Unclean!” if anyone came near you. Can you imagine what it was like to have this whole and holy Jesus walk up and touch you, knowing that he was making himself ritually unclean? Can you imagine what it did for the souls of those he touched?
Can you imagine being a woman, reviled just for who you were, at the bottom of the social status, not worth much of anything, and can you imagine what it was like to have Jesus treat you like a human being? Not like a piece of meat, not like something to be bartered in marriage? But like a human being? No wonder they followed him everywhere. No wonder they supported his ministry, personally and financially. No wonder they stayed at the foot of the cross when everybody else would run like crazy. No wonder they were the first witnesses of the Resurrection.
You and I have to get into that kind of gospel trouble. You and I have got to start connecting the dots between sexism, and racism, and heterosexism, against abuse of environment. Those things are all connected – they’re all connected.. If we could stop fighting each other over whose pain is the worst, & started working together, we’d be the majority.
I think this whole debate about homosexuality is a massive avoidance mechanism from talking about those things. If we can keep talking about them and what they do in bed, we don’t have to talk about us. And the way all those isms are connected.
Martin Luther King was shocked just after he moved beyond racism and started talking about poverty, and the war in Vietnam - that’s when he became really dangerous. He was dangerous before, but that’s when he got REALLY dangerous, when he began to connect those dots. And you & I will become dangerous if we start to do that. That’s why they killed Jesus – he saw them & pointed it out. His victory was because he kept pointing it out even when it looked like it would get him into big trouble, & of course it did
You and I are called to be passionate about the people and things Jesus was passionate about, otherwise this is just some personal feelgood thing we’ve got going back home in a church. If we’re not on the spot, making trouble, and making waves then we’d best check if we’re preaching the same gospel Jesus is preaching. It got him into trouble with the religious powers that be, and believe me, if we start doing that we’ll be in trouble too.
Isn’t it interesting you can preach a vengeful, angry God, and nobody will bat an eye but if you start preaching a God who’s too merciful, too loving, too forgiving, too compassionate, and there’s hell to pay. Right? Absolutely. And that’s why Jesus was always in trouble with the Pharisees and the Sadducees. We have to be passionate about the people Jesus was passionate about - the last, and the lost, and the least.
I had my first inkling of this and how my election was so much bigger than issues of homosexuality. 3 days after my election, I got this amazing note from the NH State Women’s Prison, and I’d never met this woman, and it said, “I’m neither gay or a Christian, generally, but something about your election that makes me believe there is a community out there that could love me, despite what I have done.” So just before the General Convention I went down to meet this woman, who turned out to be a very young woman, she was 18. And when she was 15 she had killed her mother, who interestingly, was a forensic psychiatrist. Actually, I went down to play softball with the women of the NHSWP, which is about as near-death an experience as I’ve ever had. These women played softball! And this woman, who’s become a dear friend, the woman who plays first base, is, well, let’s just say she’s so big, when she stands on first base, you can’t get to first base. I love those women. And they saw something in what happened in NH that gave them hope, and I wanted to find out what that was. The women were amazed I baptized 7 or 8 of them. The followed the consent process at General Convention. They wanted me to come back after my consecration and wear all my fancy stuff. I passed around my ring, which I got back. I spend every Christmas Eve with them. It’s an awful time to be in prison. They don’t know which family member, if they’ve got a family member, has got their kids. They’re not wrapping present and putting them under the tree, they feel completely forgotten. And it’s my Christmas present to myself. If they’ve got 1/10th out of my being there that I’ve gotten from being there, it would be amazing.
I go to the men’s prison quite a lot, and one of the young men there, he’s 19 or 20, he was one of the 2 kids who brutally murdered 2 Dartmouth professors. He will live the rest of his life there. And my challenge is to preach the gospel and say something about how he is going to claim his Christian ministry in that place, never ever getting to exercise it on the outside. These are the kinds of people we are called to reach out to. They’re desperate for the good news. Interestingly, last night I was at my old fraternity at Sewanee, and those guys at that magnificent university there are just as needy, they’re just as spiritually hungry as those guys in prison. They express it in a different way, they ask different questions, but it’s all the same thing. It’s like you and I have got to get good and tell the story about our salvation, and tie it to Scripture, and then take it to those people who so desperately need to hear it. The kinds of people that Jesus cared about.
I want to read you another story. This has come to be one of my favorite things.
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. 2 Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. 4 Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, "Look at us!" 5 So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.
6 Then Peter said, "Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk." 7 Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man's feet and ankles became strong. 8 He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. 9 When all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
This is very soon after the resurrection, and these very simple fishermen and [inaudible] other types, who had spent 3 years with Jesus NOT getting his message, suddenly having a big turnaround and getting it. And this story is so important to me as a gay man, because I and an awful lot of other people – people of color, women, people in wheelchairs, all kinds of people – have been told that they don’t belong in the temple. That the closest they can come is the back door. And there are plenty of people willing to carry them there and sit them there and let them beg for what’s left over, but the message is you’re not good enough to come in. And Peter and James[sic] call out to this man - and I love these quirky little things that appear in Scripture and you don’t know why – “Look at us! I don’t have any money, but what I do have, I give you. In the name of Jesus, get up and walk.” And this guy, not only gets up and walks, but begins to dance and run and leap and play and oh my god, he runs inside the temple, claiming it for his own. And it says – this is very important - he did so praising God, not praising Peter and James[sic] – that’s very important. That there was something about what Peter and James[sic] did and the way they did it that pointed to God, not to themselves. And he runs in, where he’s suspected he belonged all along, but for way too long he’d believed what he’d been told, which is that he belonged no further than the back door. And let me tell you, it made people mad. He knew this place – their world was all nicely ordered and set, thank you very much. And him running inside, claiming the temple for himself, claiming God and God’s blessing for himself, upset that applecart big time.
That story is so important to me, because for the first 40 years of my life, I believed I was an abomination. You know what? God didn’t get it wrong, but the Church did. The Church got it wrong, the way the Church got it wrong about slavery, and about women, and about the differently-abled, and all kinds of people. God didn’t get it wrong. And in the name of Jesus someone told me to stand up. That’s our story. We belong right in the center of things. But you don’t get to stay there. You then have to go out into the streets and find all the people who still don’t know the year of the Lord’s favor. Who still think they’re not worthy; who still think that God could not possibly love them. And then bring them to the center. Those are our stories. And we need to learn to run and leap and dance and laugh and sing, and then invite the others to the dance.
Number 4: you and I need to be prepared to pay a price. We have gotten so wimpy. People in the civil rights movement knew that they had to pay a price for what they did; whether it be water hoses or dogs or jail or death. And we have gotten so wimpy that we think that we should fight injustice and not pay a price for it. It won’t happen. It just won’t happen. And why does that take us by surprise? What risks are you and I taking for the gospel? What waves are we making for God’s sake? One of the hard things about the last 3 and a half years for me, but also one of the blessings are the costs. Just before my consecration, there were a lot of death threats. And I had to wear a bulletproof vest at my own consecration. We had to have bomb-sniffing dogs. It was pretty tense. And as I’m strapping on my bullet-proof vest, and my partner as well, my daughters…our daughters are there, pretty worried. And I was able to have this conversation with them; I was able to say, ‘You know, there are a lot worse things than dying. Like not living, for instance.’ That’s the real tragedy. There are people who are walking around and not living! I think we’ve got to be willing to pay a price, and not be surprised by it. We need to prepare for one another for it, and when someone is paying the price we need to support them. It just goes with the territory. You know, the miracle of the Resurrection is not that it brings us life after death, because that was already there. God’s going to take care of that. The Resurrection is about life before death. It’s about the quality of life that you and I are going to lead when we so believe. That’s the difference.
And so we’re doomed to a life full of conflict. Isn’t it funny that people are shocked there is conflict in the church? There’s always been conflict in the church! Most of the New Testament wouldn’t have been written if there hadn’t been conflict in the church. Paul didn’t write all these letters saying, ‘Way to go, the Corinthians are doing a great job!’ They were doing such a bad job of it, and they’re fighting with each other like cats and dogs. Peter and Paul were fighting over whether you had to become a Jew first to be a follower of Jesus. We’re all probably sitting here today following that argument. So why should we be surprised if there’s conflict in the church? And if conflict doesn’t keep us away from God... I think conflict…you know, I re-edited the Beatitudes, you know, all those states that make you blessed. I think conflict is one of them.
In the middle of the process for my consent at General Convention, when the charges were brought against me for sexual misconduct, and being linked to a pornographic website…I knew they weren’t true, but didn’t know if I could prove it before the end of the Convention. My Canon to the Ordinary brought me a little piece of calligraphy, and it’s just become my mantra. It says, “Sometimes, God calms the storm, and sometimes God lets the storm rage, and calms his child.” And just about the same time, my priest from Keene sent me a picture of a hurricane, taken from outer space. It’s a picture of this enormous swirl of cloud, and right in the center is this tiny, tiny little speck of blue. And that’s where I try to put myself. And the only way to do that is you let God get close. And I tell you, the greatest blessing of this last 3 and a half years is that God has seemed so close. Prayer sometimes seems redundant…God is so right there. Now, how can you regret something like that? People say, ‘If you had to do this all over again, would you do it?’ Well, my God, of course! Because look at what it’s done in terms of my relationship with God! You bet. You bet. So let’s not be afraid of conflict. OK, somebody’s going to get mad and pull their pledge…OK. Then what? Just don’t run from it. Let’s expect it, and then let’s look for God in the middle.
The last thing I want to say to you is that I’ll share with you the way that I get through every day, and maybe it works for you. It’s the [inaudible] archives, and people have used it for a joke. I believe with my whole heart that we’re all going to Heaven. I just believe that. And I believe that I’m going to Heaven, and that knowledge helps me put in perspective everything else that’s happened to me. So if I believe with my whole heart that I’m going to be with God when all is said and done…so what if I get a death threat? I mean, I’m not looking to be a martyr…I just want to be a bishop. But I know if it happened, it would not be the worst thing. Believing with your whole heart that you’re going to Heaven, and believing with your whole heart that your enemies are going to Heaven…that’s the trick of it. Partly I say it because I know it would drive him crazy, and partly because I believe it…Peter Akinola, the Archbishop of Nigeria and I are going to be in Heaven together. A wonderful lady theologian, an African-American woman, Berna.Dogier(?), she just recently died, said that the thing about Heaven is we’re all going there, it’s just that some people are going to be a little more surprised than others at who else is there. And when we’re all in Heaven, we’re all going to get along, because God wouldn’t have it any other way. So we might as well practicing now. So it makes a difference how you live your life. It means that you can take some risks, and you can get in some Gospel trouble, because in the end, I’m going to Heaven. And everything else is kinda small potatoes compared to that. I can do this bishop thing well, or I can do it poorly, and you know what? I’m going to Heaven! I can enter into a conflict, and try to effect reconciliation, and I can make things worse, and I’m going to Heaven, and I can make things better and I’m going to Heaven. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about how it comes out; it doesn’t mean you don’t work hard. It means that your worth doesn’t depend on it. Your worth doesn’t depend on whether you’re successful or not, no matter what you’re doing in life.
So I think you and I as ministers of the Gospel, ordained and lay alike, are called upon to make this story our own. And then to take it to people who don’t have the benefit of knowing and believing. And what I experienced last night at Sewanee, at the fraternity, is what I experience on every college campus; it’s that people are so disgusted with the institution of the Church, that it’s the last place they’d look for help with their relationship with God. [inaudible]….that spirituality…and they don’t want to talk about it, because you and I, as church people, have forgotten or temporarily misplaced the notion that our job is to assist people with that relationship with God, and then sit in the background So you and I first of all need to recover that, and then we need to take it to the people, who are still desperate to hear it. And who believe the church is the last place in the world you get help. That’s sad.
This God of ours is amazing! There is no end to this God’s love for us. How do I keep going every day, in terms of all the stuff going on in the Episc. Church, and the Anglican Communion? Because I know how it’s going to turn out, I know how it’s going to end, don’t you? It’s going to end with the full inclusion of all of God’s children. That’s how it’s going to turn out. Yeah, I don’t expect to live to see it, but that’s how it’s going to turn out. And so I don’t have to lose hope, I don’t have to get discouraged or burn out, because I’m just doing my little piece. And you can do your little piece, because we know how it’s going to end. It’s going to end with this loving God of ours being absolutely victorious. This God of ours will keep loving us so much, no matter how hard-headed we are, no matter how much we’ve resisted, this God will keep loving us until we are all reconciled with that wonderful God. That is very good news on this or any other night. Thank you.