A Sermon |Teaching Following the Court Dobbs Decision on 6-24-2022


Delighted to be with you!

On Friday, I had a great sermon planned, but then the Supreme Court decision came down, and I decided I needed to speak to it.  A bit of sermon and a bit of teaching rolled into one.

I want to begin by apologizing:  I was told my sermon should be 12 minutes long.  I’m not sure I’ve EVER preached a sermon that short!!  This sermon and reflection will be a little longer than that, so I’m apologizing now and hope you’ll indulge my needing a bit more time for this complex topic.  I’m pretty sure I’ll say at least something that you disagree with or maybe even be offended by.  If for whatever reason, you want to leave, I will make NO assumptions about why you are leaving, and I will wish you well in my heart as you depart, no explanation needed.  [For those who stay, you’ll have an opportunity to ask me questions during the forum following the service.]

I feel a bit premature about trying to address the new reality in which we live now that the Supreme Court has handed down its decision.  It’s still sinking in.  But to come to church this morning and not mention this would be like preaching on the Sunday following 9/11 and never mentioning the terrorist attack on this nation.

Of course, I can’t talk about this with you without your discerning what I think about these issues, so I won’t try.  Of course, I have an opinion!  But that doesn’t mean that I’m suggesting you have to agree with me.

I want you to know that I do not assume that my thoughts are better than or more important than or count for more than YOUR thoughts on this topic.  It’s just that I’ve been asked to preach today.  And as a bishop, I have been given the pastoral responsibility to speak about these things from a spiritual, moral, and religious perspective.  Even so, it’s dangerous and probably not wise to stand in a pulpit and preach down to ANYONE about a topic so fraught with complexity and emotion, NOR to preach confidently from a pulpit as if to suggest that the preacher perfectly understands God’s will.  In other words, I will offer my thoughts to you this morning with as much humility as I can muster in hopes that you will find them helpful.  I rarely preach from a written-out text, but I find that with such an emotional and controversial issue as this, some of you will hear things I did not actually say, and some of you will miss things I DID say!   If there’s a question, we can go to the text!

I will attempt to

  1.  Describe how Episcopalians might think ethically and theologically (and not speak for other flavors of “Christian,” let alone other faith traditions); perhaps I’ll even make you proud of how we Episcopalians go about considering such difficult issues,
  2. Offer some ways to consider how we might think theologically about what has happened, and
  3. (I’m going out on a limb here) will carefully and thoughtfully suggest what Jesus might want from me and you in response to what has been decided by SCOTUS.

So how do Episcopalians approach ethical dilemmas?  I once got into trouble when I was on Stephen Colbert’s show and said that being Episcopalian was something like “advanced placement” religion.  He had a field day with that!  What I meant then, and what I mean now, is that we try to recognize and honor the complexity of issues, recognize and not ignore the things we don’t or cannot know (like when what-we-know-as-a-human-being begins his/her life), and not attempt to ease our discomfort by reducing everything to a simplistic right-or-wrong, win-or-lose, binary choice.

It seems to me that part of being a mature adult is the capacity to hold two opposing thoughts simultaneously and then living with the anxiety that such a tension causes.  So I’m hoping you might leave here today, and when asked whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, you can confidently answer, “yes!”

For the record, the following is the official stance of The Episcopal Church on this topic, articulated and reaffirmed over multiple decades:  [quote]“We emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience.”[end quote]  And since 1967, The Episcopal Church has maintained its [quote] “unequivocal opposition to any legislation on the part of the national or state governments which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decisions [about the termination of pregnancy] and to act upon them.” [end quote]

In other words, (1) abortion is serious business, and such a decision needs to be made carefully and prayerfully, AND (2) that decision belongs to the pregnant woman.  She may or may not make that choice in consultation with her doctor, her priest, and/or her trusted friends.  But the decision is hers to make.  Period.

One reason I think we must have this discussion is that what the Supreme Court did on Friday goes far beyond the issue of abortion.  It is cataclysmic because by casting aside 50 years of settled law and precedent, now everything seems up for grabs!  Justice Thomas actually went so far as to enumerate other decisions and precedents that should be reconsidered — including the right to gay marriage, the right to obtain contraception, and even the legality of same-sex intimacy.  It is cataclysmic because people have organized their lives and families around these high court decisions, believing them to be irreversible, except in extreme and rare circumstances.

And this couldn’t have come at a worse time when we are already wildly polarized as a nation and people.  We are already primed to treat the other side as “bad people” and even “enemies.”  God help us!!  No really!!  I mean it!!  God help us!!

Today’s Gospel

Today’s Gospel, and other passages of scripture, may be helpful to us:

In today’s Gospel, there is a sense of urgency coming from Jesus.  Follow me NOW, he says.  Don’t even put it off by tending the dead!  Reiterating a familiar Jesus theme, “It’s not what you BELIEVE that I most care about, it’s what you DO!!”  And what I want you to DO is “make haste and follow me!”

This Gospel signals that moment when Jesus leaves Galilee and his ministry there and finally “sets his face toward Jerusalem.”  And for those who think religion and politics shouldn’t be mixed, you’ll just have to take that up with Jesus, not me.  He’s the one that mixed the two of them and called us to do the same.

Let’s be clear about this:  Jesus doesn’t “turn his face toward Jerusalem” because he wants another pulpit from which to preach about God’s love!  He heads to Jerusalem because it is the center of Roman and Temple authority, which he intends to challenge.  A political objective!  He is not crucified for preaching “love thy neighbor.”  He is crucified because he is perceived to be a threat to the secular and religious powers that be, as a potential leader of a political rebellion.  That’s politics.

Let me just mention in passing one other relevant scripture passage worth exploring another day:  

Notice God’s treatment of Mary during the so-called Annunciation to Mary we hear about during Advent and Christmas, and which we celebrate when we recite The Magnificat.  The Angel Gabriel comes to Mary and, on behalf of God, ASKS Mary if she will cooperate with God in bringing Jesus into the world.  God ASKS.  Now stop and think about that!!  God doesn’t command, or even demand, her participation or proceed without her permission.  (We call that rape.)  Mary actually has a CHOICE about whether or not she will become pregnant.  God exhibits toward this lowly young girl the kind of infinite respect for women virtually unheard of in the ancient world.  Why is that?  And what might it have to say about today’s reality?

Thoughts on the Supreme Court’s decision and its ramifications

  1.  First, this is the most important point I want to make:  The questions surrounding abortion, choice, and personal agency are about how we respect and protect the dignity of every human being — something as Episcopalians we promise to do in our baptismal covenant.  This is a religious issue, not just a political one.  Long before we began to dismiss and denounce “respecting the dignity of every human being” as being merely “political correctness,” we simply called it The Gospel.
  2. Ethics rarely deal with simple choices between the clearly good and the clearly evil.  Ethics is the art of weighing all the options,  and then making a decision, not knowing for sure if that is God’s will for us.  That’s what we have with abortion.  Those who would try to convince us it’s a simple, straightforward decision dictated by God are deceiving themselves and lying to us.
  3. As a priest and pastor, and for the record, I have never known anyone who has had an abortion who took it lightly.  Period.
  4. Being pro-life is not just about being pro-fetus.  It’s also about being pro the already- living.  It’s also about access to birth control and sex education to prevent unwanted pregnancy and the need for abortions in the first place.  It’s about all those things needed by the one who chooses to HAVE her child or one who adopts a child:  a support network for families, universal health care, parental leave, child care for mothers who must work to provide for their children, and food support for those who are food insecure.  Why do we rarely see any support for THESE things from those who oppose abortion??!   At these demonstrations against abortion, why don’t we see signs advocating FOR these things as well?  Or does the caring end when the fetus becomes a living, breathing baby?

Remember, I’m talking about respecting the dignity of every human being.  This is not politics, this is Gospel imperative.  And I would argue that a human right, protected by the Constitution, is a law that increases the respect for and protects the dignity of all our citizens.

  1. And speaking of respect, make no mistake:  This is about men controlling women by controlling their bodies.  After all, isn’t THAT the reason we abhor the Taliban’s treatment of women, that it disrespects them by controlling them and robbing them of the agency which is rightly theirs?  Can’t we do better than that?!  Are we headed toward a real life version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale?  I pray not.
  2. If you think I’m joking about this being about men and their power over women, consider this:  What would be the reaction if the Supreme Court had just ruled constitutional a contested law which made it a felony for men to take Viagara, and declared it a criminal offense to produce, sell, or use drugs like Viagara and Cialis which contribute to the NEED for abortions.  Men’s heads would explode like fireworks on the 4th of July!
  3. Most importantly, scripture is absolutely clear about one thing:  God cares especially about the poor and about our care of the poor and vulnerable.  Make no mistake:  this ruling will not stop abortions.  They will continue, sought by those who can afford the procedure and the cost of travel to access them.  In other words, reasonably well-off (and usually white) women will still have access to abortion, one way or another.  But not for poor women who can’t afford to take off work for a few days, travel to another state, stay in a hotel, and pay for an abortion.  Those women will be forced to have their babies or seek an illegal and dangerous abortion in the alley out back.  So this ruling by the Supreme Court will adversely and disproportionately affect poor women, women of color, and women who are “subject to their husbands” because of cultural and religious beliefs rooted in patriarchy.  The God who cares especially for the poor and vulnerable demands better from us!

It is hard for me to imagine how forcing someone to have a baby they don’t want — especially one conceived in incest or rape — how that can be interpreted as respecting the dignity of any human being.  Do we just want to punish her, even if it means years of punishing her child as well, once born?  Good Lord, forgive us.

For too many years, we have not respected the dignity of human beings by depriving them of agency over their own lives:  That’s what slavery did.  That’s how patriarchy works.  That is racism’s strategy.  It’s why there are over 200 anti-LGBTQ hate bills are being taken up across the country in state legislatures.  It’s what voter suppression is trying to achieve.  And now we want to take away women’s agency and bodily integrity when they are most vulnerable and treat them like a commodity to be managed and regulated.  Shame on those who have fought for it, and shame on those of us who have stood by and let it happen.

Call to Action

Briefly, let me ask, “So what would Jesus want us to do?”

Jesus said, “Follow me.”  NOT after saying goodbye to our families, but NOW!  If we ever needed people who FOLLOW Jesus rather than merely ADMIRE and AGREE with him, it is now!  Let me say that again. (Repeat)  If you care about what is happening, now is the time to DO something.

Let’s try starting with humility and continuing with careful listening, especially to those with whom we disagree.  Let’s lower our voices!  Let us pray for those we’d consider to be our “enemies.”  (It’s hard to mistreat or hate someone you’re praying for.)

Let’s really look for common ground.  Set aside trying to convert those with whom you disagree to your way of thinking.  Find something you CAN work on together while you disagree.

Let’s use more I statements about what is true for ourselves and less telling others what must be true for THEM.  

Write an op-ed.  Go to a demonstration.  Register voters.  Write a check.  Volunteer to work at a polling station.  START something.  DO something.  JOIN something.  ATTEND something.  Don’t let the lack of theological or political purity be your excuse for doing nothing.

And fight the notion that there’s really nothing that can be done about all this.  That’s a recipe for feeling depressed for sure!  After all, we are in the HOPE business!!  Our story doesn’t end in death, it ends in resurrection!!

Ask God for guidance.  And resilience. And courage.

And here comes the maddening, hard part, so listen up!  Remember that no matter how badly we may be treated by those we consider to be our enemies, we are NEVER relieved of our duty to treat them like the children of God they are.  Disagree with them, oppose them, vote against them, argue with them, but treat them like God’s children.  After all, one day, we’re all going to be in heaven together, forgiven and loved, and probably really surprised to see each other there!!

Finally, remember that we are never alone, and God is with us.  Not “on our side” in the sense of winning a competition, but always with us, walking with us, wanting the best for us, no matter what.  Until the end of time.  

And the Good News of this and every Sunday is that God’s promise to be with us turns out to be…just enough.

For that, thanks be to God.