Jesus Raises the Bar

The Rev. Julie Wakelee-Lynch St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Albany, CA

Sunday, February 12, 2017 (Epiphany 6A)


Twenty-eight years ago yesterday, The Rev. Barbara Clementine Harris was consecrated Bishop Suffragan in the Diocese of Massachusetts. She was the first woman elected bishop in the Episcopal Church, and also the first in the Anglican Communion. A woman of African-American decent, Bishop Harris was the recipient of death threats and obscene messages. A breakaway group, the Episcopal Synod of America, formed in opposition to her consecration. An acolyte at the first “irregular” ordination of women to the priesthood in July of 1974, Bishop Harris was by that time already a seasoned fighter for social justice: she was a Freedom Rider, marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama with Dr. King, and spent summer vacations registering voters in Mississippi. Boston police dispatched an entire unit to protect her consecration, and she is noted for having refused to wear the recommended bullet-proof vest. Her remark? “I don’t take it personally.” You could say that she was warned, she was given an explanation, and nevertheless, she persisted.

Bishop Harris was an honored guest, panelist and preacher at a conference for clergy women in Province VIII of the Episcopal Church (the western states), held here in the Bay Area in 2009. It was an incredible gift to meet her, to hear her preaching, and to enjoy her famous and outspoken wit. I clearly remember that after an evening worship service which was lovely, if a little dry, she took to the grand piano and said, “sisters, now let’s have some CHURCH!” and she proceeded to play gospel tunes and lead us in a rollicking time of spirit filled singing.Bishop Harris is a leader whose Yes means Yes, and whose No means No. In her active ministry, she was faithful, courageous and clear.

In his teaching in today’s gospel, Jesus drills deep. He takes teachings already known to his hearers and amplifies them. He calls his followers to an even higher standard than that of the Hebrew Law. Why? Because he does not want people to just follow the rules. He wants those who would be part of his movement to embody the very best of peacemaking within the community.

In Jesus’ time, and still in many cultures today, familial and community honor and cohesiveness are of ultimate importance. The passage we heard this morning has been trotted out into all kinds of interesting interpretations. But let’s step back a bit and look at what’s actually going on: First, Jesus makes reconciliation the highest good. More important than Temple worship is making amends with those who have been wronged or who have done wrong. “Leave your gift before the altar and go; first be reconciled…then come and offer your gift.”

He moves on to other kinds of fissures in community life: To break up a family is to cast dishonor upon and threaten the stability of the community. Scholar Bruce Malina writes that adultery, in this case, means for a man to dishonor another man in his community by having sexual relations with the latter’s wife. In other words, the offender breaks bonds of trust by disregarding the integrity of the family.1 And, because this has happened, there is a debt to be repaid. At some point it was decided that the risk of tearing the whole community apart was too great, and so the penalty was that both the man who offended, and the woman with whom he had relations, were to be killed, stopping the cycle. We know that so-called “honor killings” persist today, and that, in reality, it is women who bear harshest treatment.

But Jesus says, “don’t even commit the disrespect of crossing the boundary in your mind.
Place the value of the healthy community above your lust, your need for power, your need to prove yourself over someone else.” Marriage was both a political and economic bond, bringing two families together for the mutual benefit of both. It was not about romantic love. If marriage was the bringing together of families for a beneficial bond, divorce, was the breaking of this partnership between the two families. Again, if shame is brought, restitution must be paid. It gets messy.

All of this is in a context in which the wellbeing and survival of the community is a very high good. Far higher than the wishes or desires of an individual. The concept of the individual as separate from the community was not something that people in Jesus’ time would have grasped or even considered. There is a lot of beauty in the understanding we have for individual rights and persons, but in many cases, we have also lost a sense of considering the impact of our actions on the community.

Perhaps the idea of having this kind of measure even leaves us wondering how a community could so privilege group needs over individuals, as much as if someone from the First Century were dropped into our time, they would be amazed at our idea that we are somehow separate from one another: that our actions are individual and don’t shape the fabric of the whole community.

In the marketplace, vendors often made great claims to their clients about the goodness of their products—swearing “before heaven” or “by Jerusalem” about their veracity. Which, as is still true today, served primarily to cast doubt upon their claims. Jesus says, “let’s cut to the chase: don’t make God responsible for what you are trying to cover—just be straight with people. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.”

Taking all of these little windows together, I wonder: in what ways do we, today, try to take the teachings of our faith tradition and make them barriers for people, rather than doors? In what ways might Jesus be calling us to step up to a higher standard? One thing that strikes me in Jesus’ teaching that lays such a heavy emphasis on the health of the community is that we would do well to remember that we are not alone. Our decisions DO impact one another, and, we are part of one another, whether we choose that or not.

Bishop Harris, when asked about the risks she took in the Civil Rights Movement, brushed it aside, saying, “Everyone was in danger.”2 As at her consecration, it wasn’t about her.

I’ve been in a number of small meetings lately where people have been talking about how to act on issues of great concern. Having done peace and justice work since I was a teen, I wonder how long it will take for these groups of enthusiastic people to start pulling at one another’s seams, or, if they, if we, will be able to stay rooted in a common vision and set aside our individual quirks and peeves to keep our eyes on the prize. This is one of the most foundational values of Church: to struggle together as human people called together in the love of God: to offer our best selves to the community, to seek forgiveness from one another when we slip, to value the well- being of the community so much that we are willing to make personal sacrifices to ensure our shared journey to being people of peace and healing for a broken world.

After the sermon she preached in Burlingame on that autumn evening in 2009,
Bishop Harris offered us this blessing, which is reputed to come from the Franciscan tradition:

May God bless you with DISCOMFORT

at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,

so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with ANGER
at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with TEARS
to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war,

so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into JOY.

And May God bless you with enough FOOLISHNESS to believe that you can make a difference in this world.


1 Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1992) Pp. 52-55

2 U.S. News and World Report, June 19, 1989, Lynn Rosellini, “The first of the ‘mitered mamas’.”