Mary D. Fisher: “Common People”
I was a child raised in a Jewish home who attended a school in the Episcopalian tradition. I have since had occasion to preach in enough settings to become an honorary Catholic Presbyterian Disciples Methodist Congregationalist AME with definite Jewish sympathies.
The deepest Christian roots planted in my life are drawn from the tradition of this Cathedral. It was in an Episcopalian church that I first heard sermons drawn from the New Testament, in an Episcopalian pew that I learned certain lessons of grace. If, in my comments this morning, I echo your faith, I am merely paying a debt of gratitude to those Episcopalians who nurtured me at Cranbrook.
I must also say this word of thanks on behalf of all pilgrims on the road to AIDS. From the earliest hour of the epidemic, the prayers and the support and the inclusion of the Episcopalian Church and of this Cathedral itself have sustained men, and women, and children, and their families, in their struggles with life and their struggles with death. Especially from those no longer here, I bring you thanks.
It’s tempting, in a massive cathedral, high on a pulpit, to preach. But I see this morning as a rare opportunity to be not an orator but a friend. We have, you and I, both come here for the same thing. We want to be refreshed. We hope to be inspired. We need to be comforted. At our best, we would find some way to embrace one another not to admire elegant rhetoric, but to whisper the truth to each other.
And such an intimate, one-to-one conversation, would be the right context for me to tell you that a few weeks ago I stopped taking medications intended to prolong my life. The side effects were so disabling that, while the length of my life may have been stretched, I thought the value of my life was being narrowed. I was too sick to be a loving friend or thoughtful artist or— most painfully an adequate mother. I found my son Max, who has already lost one parent to AIDS, silently looking at me; I could hear him wonder if I was following his father, and how long it would be. I heard the fear in my son Zachary’s voice, the anxiety that attaches to deep fear.
Living on the road to AIDS does not mean I am a “victim.” We make our own decisions along this, or any other, road; lacking an option we truly like, we pick what seems best from the available options. And so I have. Where, in the past, I had given speeches warning that women had not been involved in the tests of so-called “miracle drugs,” and that widely touted drugs are not working well with women—well, now I no longer need to give speeches on the topic. Now I can give evidence.
As I said elsewhere last week, “in making this decision, I do not think I am unusual. I suspect that any one of you whose children are young, and whose children are loved, would have made the same decision. I have merely joined that legion of women with AIDS who have chosen to step away from drugs in favor of the ability to be a parent.”
So a common woman stands in the pulpit this morning, looking out at mostly common people. Some of you have AIDS too; some cancer, or heart disease, or depression. Some of us came this morning wondering if they’d see someone famous; and some of the famous came, wondering when fame will turn to infamy. We are all common: in common, we fear that our child is on drugs; we worry that our partner has taken a lover; we wake in the night haunted by the pain we run from all day long.
In the splendor of the National Cathedral, a rag-tag band of common human beings have gathered for worship. And what’s amazing is that God has, for generations and for centuries, gathered with just such people as us.
We hear him in the ancient prophet Habakkuk who pointed to the miseries of his day: his epidemics, his emotional collapse, his reasons for giving up hope. Habakkuk’s fig tree won’t blossom; his fruit trees bear no fruit. He loses health, and mobility, and confidence. And when his possessions are also taken away, and when his future is consigned to ruin, he says, “I will rejoice in the Lordthe God of my salvation.”
I’ve heard Pollyanna preachers speak of being giddy-happy no matter what. If we have faith, we grind a smile into our face and pretend nothing matters. “Rejoice!” Such unmitigated smiling would, I think, be better described either as profound immaturity, or as mental illness. Whatever it is, it is not faith.
Faith is knowing that, in the end, when everything else is stripped away, what will be left is God. Habakkuk isn’t saying, “Since my life has gone to hell, now I’m just goofy joyful.” If you believe that, you’ve never seen real pain or grief; you’ve never heard the sounds of the Wailing Wall, and the terrible stench of death that drives us there.
What Habakkuk is saying is this: When I am stripped of everything I thought would make me happy; when I am naked, destitute, dying then, looking over my barren field, I see God coming toward me, arms out-stretched, whispering a welcome or calling out a promise.
Or, in modern terms, I live with AIDS. I cannot give my life length; I can only give it depth. And my life will not have greater value to my family, or my nation, or myself if I have prettier clothes or a larger swimming pool, better media coverage or a bigger stock portfolio. I’ve been in more rooms with more dying people in the past eight years than I could have imagined in the previous forty. And what I’ve learned there is how eager we are to see God. Clothes no longer fit us, and cannot keep us warm, but we want to be held, and cradled, and loved. We would gladly trade our media coverage for the warmth of our child’s hand, for one last hug. When we have given up hope that we will ever again rejoice, what we want to hear is not the market report. We want to hear someone say, “I love you.”
And when we hear “I love you” in a voice we recognize as God’s, we turn toward the Light, surprised, struggling for just enough breath to say, “My God!my God, I will rejoice again.”
Habakkuk reminds me of the man who once asked, “If you knew you had only one day to live, who would you call? Who would you see? What would you say?” And then, “What are you waiting for?”
Then comes our lesson from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Church in Corinth, was all about wisdom and folly. Here and elsewhere Paul talks about the “secret, hiddenbefore the ages.” And the secret he has in mind is that salvation is available not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles or Greeks. Trained as a rabbi, Paul says, “Yes, I know, conventional wisdom says that the God of the Jews cannot also be the God of the Greeks, of the Gentiles. But listen, I’m telling you, that’s foolishness; like it or not, we are all one family.”
There was one race in the Garden of Eden, one set of parents, making us one set of brothers and sisters in one family, gifting us with one human language with which to be human together. But after exile from the Garden, our grandparents built a tower at Babel to, as Genesis tells us, “make a name for ourselves.” And then the trouble got serious.
St. Paul is preaching to a global crowd that came away from Babel’s tower fighting the idea of one family. Race against race, nationality against nationality, gender against gender, Party against Party. In whatever language we can grab, we are God’s, and God is ours and everyone else is lost. We’ve continued not only to try to “make a name for ourselves,” but to name others. And we’ve done it with deadly malice.
We could never have lynched loving Black parents of innocent children; but when we named African Americans “niggers,” lynching became just a hard night’s work. We could never have marched six million human beings into the camps; but when we named my relatives “pigs” and “kikes,” we sent them into the gas chambers believing that we were doing God’s will.
Could we legislate so freely against Hispanic immigrants without the backdrop of racism, without the jokes that name them “wetbacks”? Could we drag someone into a field, and beat him, and leave him hanging from a fence to die if we had learned to call him “Matthew” instead of “fag”? How else can we begin the prayer together, “Our father?” if we are not all children of one God? The truth is, we’ve come stumbling down the corridors of history denying this reality, building our stereotypes, fueling our prejudices, inventing names to keep others out of our family.
I was raised on the stereotype of “Father Knows Best” and Miss America pageants. I was weaned on the belief that women should be pretty and clean, perky and pure. And then I heard a diagnosis which made me eligible for the American stereotype of women with AIDS: a dirty disease rooted in dirty sex and dirty needles which affects only dirty women.
Like it or not, we are one family. Like it or not, God’s family is Black and White, male and female, gay and straight, Republican and Democrat, infected and uninfected. Like it or not, God’s family has AIDS. Like it or not, when “partisanship” degenerates into brutality in Washington, DC, it is no longer politics. It is abuse. It’s brutality. It’s evil.
And it’s the third lesson we heard, the passage from the most famous sermon ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, that teaches us about evil. It delivers the lesson by telling us we need to “be a light” to the world, that we need to be “righteous” more righteous than the religious leaders of our day, or we’ll “never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I’ve craved a lot of things in my life. “Righteousness” has not been high on the list. The closest I came to liking the word “righteous” was dancing to the music of The Righteous Brothers who, as it turned out, weren’t. When someone says “righteous,” I hear “self-righteous.” I think of hypocrisy, frankly. I think of people who use religion only when it is convenient, who dress up in confession only as a last resort when every other alternative has been exhausted. I hear so-called leaders describe their opponent’s adultery as “bestiality,” and his own as “youthful indiscretions.”
Righteousness is a good idea. It is, simply, the ability to identify good and pursue it; to distinguish evil, and fight it. If there has ever been a time in history that cries out for it, we are in that time.
We don’t like some of the words I used earlier; we shouldn’t. But we should not be so frightened of the word “evil.” When all individual behavior is reduced to psychology, and all group behavior is reduced to sociology, there’s not much room left for “evil.” He killed his parents because he was a troubled child. They massacred their neighbors because of “years of hostility.” We assassinate our opponent’s character because “it’s politics.” Another explanation for these things would be “evil.”
We need both the courage and the clarity to call evil “evil” when we see it; else we as individuals, as a church, as a nation will never know the value of being righteous.
A reporter covering the war in Kosovo wrote a letter home in which he said he had been changed by the experience there. “I cannot erase the memory of the infant with the nail driven through her head,” he said. That reporter now knows evil.
When your mother has been raped, your father lynched, your reputation unfairly ruined, then you begin to hunger for some righteousness. When your name is Matthew, and they call you “fag,” then you want righteousness —because you are face to face with evil.
Somewhere in our political battles in this nation, we need to draw the line closer to civility, because when we stray across that border we flirt with evil. And the church, God’s family, must say so. Else “the salt” has already “lost its savor,” and we have lost our purpose.
When we tolerate bias and prejudice as the basis of our public policy, we are not merely “following the polls.” We’re following evil. And the church, God’s family, must say so. Else our light has gone under a bushel, and we’ve lost our value.
When we say those with cancer deserve research, those with heart disease deserve funding, and those with AIDS got what they deserved we are not speaking “candidly.” We are speaking evil. And the church must say so. Else we have no integrity, and no courage, and no righteousness.
But if we do pursue righteousness, according to The Great Sermon, we come to a place where our hostilities and our fears and our anxieties are put to rest. We arrive where Habakkuk left us, hearing God’s voice saying, “don’t be so anxious about your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink, or what you shall wear. Look at the birds sailing above the Cathedral: they neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns; and yet your Father feeds them. Seek first his kingdom, and his righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well.”
It’s hard not to be anxious. When our relationships are torn, when our careers are at risk, when we watch the virus having its way with usit’s hard not to be anxious. But here’s a word for those of us who are anxious: Our father knows us, and what we need. If he will feed the birds, he will cradle his children.
We come together for worship. And then we go home, you to your struggles and I to mine. But having seen you here; having looked across this great sanctuary and having felt the power of your prayers; I will go home encouraged that common people can be uncommonly good.
I will tell Max, when he sees his mother’s sick bed and remembers his father’s deathbed, that if desperate times come, and he is all alone, there is a community of faith where he can take refuge. And I will tell Zack, when he grows silent and frightened, that there are righteous people who will defend him.
If, in fact, I should need to leave, I look to you to tell my children that I have not left them; I have only gone a little ways ahead. Tell them you know I saw God coming across the field, because you heard me say, “My God!” Tell them that they will rejoice again, laugh again, roll on the floor and be silly again because if he will feed the birds, he will cradle his children.
And know that, as you speak to my children, I will be offering this benediction: “Grace to you, and peace.” </P