Humans can be reached

Preached on June 25, 2017 (the transferred Feast of Sts. Peter & Paul), at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Seattle.

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“I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” --Ezekiel 34:16a

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Lindy West is a fat woman.

She would want me to say it that way. She’s not “large,” or “heavy,” or “a woman of size.” She says we should use the word ‘fat,’ because that is how she is seen in our weight-conscious culture; that is how she is judged; that is the reason why she is both visible in a way that upsets people, and invisible because fat people are erased from view, overlooked, disregarded.

I doubt she would want me to say only that she is a fat woman, and I doubt she would want me to begin with that. But her story of reconciliation, her story of forgiveness, begins with that. She is a journalist, a critic, a comedian, an internet personality, a daughter, a sister, and a wife. And she is terrifically funny. But like most of us, someone took notice of her not for all of those lovely reasons, but because of her physical appearance, and her refusal to be silent and invisible.

She concludes her autobiographical book with a story of forgiveness. The book is called Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. Her work puts her in the public eye quite often—specifically, on the internet. And that means she is often trolled. Many of you know what that means, but if not, an internet troll is someone who harasses or taunts people online. Sometimes they make a nasty or snarky comment on one of your social media posts, or they retweet you with a vicious insult, or they email you, sometimes with death threats. She is familiar with this, and accepts it as a hazard of her profession. Comedians—particularly outspoken, female comedians—are going to get trolled a lot.

But one particular troll cut her more deeply than anyone else. Not long after her father’s death, someone created a Twitter account that played on her father’s name, and expressed disappointment in his fat daughter, from beyond the grave. The troll had Googled her, found an image of her father, and used it as his profile picture. Think of it: you’re grieving the death of a parent, and someone assumes that parent’s identity to harass you. She was used to trolls and had a thick skin, but Lindy West wrote, “My armor wasn’t strong enough for that.”

She knew she had to ignore him—that is the only appropriate response, the only sensible response. Never reply to a troll. It only invites further abuse. But she couldn’t resist. She questioned the tactic, saying, “Conventional wisdom says, ‘Don’t engage. It’s what they want.’ Is it? Are you sure our silence isn’t what they want? Are you sure they care what we do at all? From where I’m sitting, if I respond, I’m a sucker for taking the bait. If I don’t respond, I’m a punching bag.”

She decided to write about it in a magazine article, one week later. And a few hours after the article went up, she got an email from the troll. To her utter astonishment, he apologized. He explained that his behavior stemmed from self-loathing, yet he did not make excuses. He made a donation to a charity in her father’s memory, and wished her the best.

Lindy West was floored. She debated how best to respond, but she finally decided to take him at his word, and she replied. Eventually, they spoke by phone, and the conversation was broadcast on an episode of the radio show, “This American Life.”

It is an astonishing conversation.

At one point, she challenges him by saying, “I mean, have you lost anyone? Can you imagine? Can you imagine?” “I can. I can,” he replied. “I don’t know what else to say except that I’m sorry.” She wrote, “He sounded defeated. I believed him. I didn’t mean to forgive him, but I did.”

Her conclusion from this unbelievable experience—and it truly beggared belief—was this: “Humans can be reached,” she wrote. “I have proof.”

“Humans can be reached. I have proof.”

Today we commemorate two humans who needed to be reached. They needed to be brought into conversation for the purpose of reconciliation. They were not necessarily the internet trolls of their day, but they both did some very bad things. One of them betrayed his friend, and denied knowing his friend at the hour of deepest need. The other persecuted people who had been targeted by the religious authorities. He guarded the belongings of people who picked up stones to crush the skulls of those deemed to be outcasts, blasphemers, rebels. Peter and Paul: they did some dreadful things.

They also came to be in high conflict with each other. As the Jesus Movement began to grow, disputes arose (and they have risen again and again, with each generation of this movement). Peter and Paul argued about whether all members of the movement should observe Jewish practices and rituals. Peter finally needed a divine revelation to relent from his position. Peter and Paul: they did not get along.

Jesus in John’s Gospel appears to his disciples more than once, and in one encounter he cooked them breakfast. The mood was tense: they had just caught a huge haul of fish with his help, and as they brought the catch ashore, they realized who he was, but they were afraid to speak openly to him. They were afraid to say or do much at all. And Jesus chose this moment to reach out to Peter, to bring him back to the fold. Three times he asked Peter if he loved him—one time for each of Peter’s denials. Ornery to the end, Peter felt hurt that Jesus asked three times, but he came back. Jesus reached him.

Later, Paul had his own story of conversion, and again we see Jesus trying to reach out to someone, trying to bring him back to the fold. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Jesus cried, in a dazzling theophany. Paul needed to be blinded and knocked to the ground for the message to get through, but he heard it. Jesus reached him.

Perhaps we acclaim these flawed men because we see something of ourselves in them. Lindy West saw something human in the so-called “troll” who hurt her. To forgive him, she needed to recognize him as a human being who had the capacity to respond to her, and not just cut her. To forgive him, she needed to be in relationship with him. To forgive him, she needed to reach out to him, to bring him back. Or she needed to allow him to reach out to her, which is what he did.

If she had stayed silent, she would not have had this experience. But this vulnerability was terribly risky for both of them.

And yet, for us, this vulnerability is something we are called to experience. It is what church is all about. We are in the business of reconciliation. Today we are invited to tie rainbow ribbons into our fence, to more prominently and colorfully demonstrate to our neighborhood that we welcome everyone, with love but also with pride. The larger church that includes us also includes many people who have harassed and rejected queer people, sometimes in ways that resulted in their deaths. And yet this parish includes many queer people, including me. Christians have also harassed those who don’t share their views, and tried to terrify them into the faith with threats of exclusion and hell.

Like Peter, like Paul, we have a lot to apologize for. We have played our part in systemic oppression, in religious discrimination, in the degradation of our queer neighbors, and in the degradation of ourselves. And, like Peter, like Paul, Jesus reaches out to us, he meets us here, he pauses at this font and this table, and he brings us back.

“Humans can be reached,” Lindy West says. She is happily not a Christian, and never needs to be. God is bigger than all that. God doesn’t necessarily need more Christians. God just wants reconciliation.

I am astonished and gladdened by this news. We are invited to embrace, all of us together, all of us forgiven, all of us reconciled.

This is what God is creating.

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Ezekiel 34:11-16
Psalm 87
2 Timothy 4:1-8
John 21:15-1