When I was living in Virginia and serving as a priest at an Episcopal church in Arlington, I met a priest named Bruce McPherson. He had been the interim priest at the parish I served before they called it’s current rector. At that time, Bruce was serving as the interim at St. John’s, Lafayette Square in Washington D.C.. Lafayette Square is the plaza or park that is across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, and St. John’s is a deeply historic church. They have a pew that is permanently reserved for the President, who almost never goes to church there, and they have numerous members who have high-ranking jobs in the federal government. For example, Robert Mueller who served as special council for the investigation that resulted in the Mueller Report on potential collusion between the Russian Government and the Trump Campaign.
That is not to comment on the report or claims, only that he is indicative of who some of the parish’s members are.
When Bruce told me that many of their members work for the top levels of the federal government, I was a bit in awe of that, and asked him how does he lead a parish like that, I greatly appreciated his reply: The members of that congregation are seeking the moral authority of the church to inform them how to live their lives and to serve the people of this nation.
That’s the need, or potential need, that I have sitting in the back of my mind this morning, that following the events of this week, might it be that some of us in this building are seeking the moral authority of the church, and what it has to say about the events of this week, and especially as it relates to the overturning of Roe vs. Wade?
(Now, I’m also sensitive to the fact that we do have minors in the room, so I’m going to do my best to discuss these things in a manner that is appropriate and edifying for everyone).
I’ll start by laying out the official stance of the Episcopal Church. Ever since the late 1960’s, when the topic of abortion was in the headlines and becoming a matter of interest, the Episcopal Church has officially held to a few basic principles. First, that life is precious, and that every single, individual human life is of deep value to preserve and protect, as much as possible. Second, that the termination of a pregnancy should only be undertaken in extreme circumstances and after much discernment, and not as a means of birth control. But also third, that the government should make no restrictions on access to it, and that an individual has the right to decide for themself what is best for them, their health, and their life.
These principles have been reaffirmed on several occasions over the past decades as well, that this is still the official stance of the Episcopal Church. It was also reflected by our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in a message that was released following the final decision by the Supreme Court this week.
Bishop Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, also expressed his concern for those women who live in places where access has been or will be restricted and don’t have the same means to find a provider, especially financial means, and that this will disproportionately affect poor and marginalized individuals–those who are already struggling in life. In circumstances like this, the matter very much becomes a matter of justice as some will struggle more than others due to the changes in the landscape we’re already experiencing.
Now, having laid out the official Episcopal stance on the matter, I think it’s of value to look at what it is that our faith can teach us. Within that, one of the first places that I look for guidance is what the Bible has to say about the matter. One of the most referenced passages of the Scriptures that relates to the discussion comes to us from the book of Exodus. In chapter 22, verse 21, the commandment there reads that if two men are fighting and they end up striking a pregnant woman who has a miuscarriage but is not otherwise harmed, the guilty person will be fined whatever is deemed appropriate. But, if the woman is also harmed, then the penalty is more severe, up to an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, life for a life. So if the woman miscarries it’s a monetary penalty, if she is killed it’s the death sentence.
At the same time that the Episcopal Church was laying out it’s official stance on the matter, other Protestant Christian denominations in the US were using this biblical passage to make the case that terminating a pregnancy, which a serious matter, is not murder. As the principle give their states, if the woman dies the offender gets the death penalty–a life for a life– but if she miscarries it’s a monetary fine. It’s serious, but not murder.
Which I find fascinating, because of the high value that the Old Testament writings put on life. Because humankind were made in the image of God, and that God breathed life into them from the dust of the ground, and for that reason human life is seen as very precious indeed, and to be protected and cherished. High penalties were put on the destruction of human life, and harking another individual. Even after the great Flood, when Noah and his family came out of the Ark, God spoke to Noah and said that even an animal that harms a human being should have it’s life ended, because that’s how precious human life is.
And yet, that same principle, that same life-for-a-life, is not granted to the unborn.
This plays out in another manner for contemporary Jews, where preserving the life of a pregnant woman is so important that it’s perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged, to terminate a pregnancy in order to save the life of the woman. That so precious is the woman’s life that it is to be protected above the survival of the fetus.
Now, all of this has been a fairly cold telling of things, which I think can’t be the only place where the discussion lies. Though not having experienced having to make this decision, I recognize how hard this decision has been and is for certainly the vast majority of people, and the lingering feelings and emotions and effects that it has on a person. I would imagine that most people don’t come to the decision to terminate lightly. So it becomes a pastoral issue, a compassion issue, of caring for people in the midst of difficult and painful circumstances. And that is what we should be about–being compassionate, being caring. Expressing love, kindness, gentleness. Of sharing peace, patience, goodness. Of striving for a world with joy and faithfulness, in the midst of brokenness. And there is brokenness here, because it’s not a happy and *yay* kind of decision, but I do think biblically, theologically, and spiritually acceptable.
Maybe it’s because it’s a gloomy day outside, but this all feels so heavy right now. That could be appropriate, because this is a heavy topic and it’s been a gloomy week for many people. And a lot of our Sundays have been gloomy. I don’t want to leave us here, sullen and dark, you know, because ours is a message of hope, and a faith rooted in hope. Hope that God is breaking into the world, into the created order, to make all things new. To redeem all things, and to give life and light and joy and peace.
Look at our first reading today. Elijah anoints Elisha, and then says “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” Being a prophet was hard on Elijah, and he didn’t want the same for Elisha, who then says, “Nope, this is happening,” cooks the oxen, and faithfully follows the calling of God on his life. And at times it was a hard life, but God did great and wonderful things through Elisha.
There is hope in the midst of suffering. There is joy after pain. There is life after death. That is the message of redemption, that with God on our side, things can and will get better. May that be true in our lives and in our lifetime. And may we be faithful to the God who loves us and gave himself for us. Amen.