A week ago this morning we were still in Hot Springs, NC for the conclusion of the Wild Goose Festival (WGF). All week my mind has been going back to Hot Springs. I flew back like a wild goose this morning when I read the readings for Good Shepherd Sunday.
In Jeremiah 23 the prophet laments the fact that the shepherds have deserted and betrayed the sheep. Wild Goose was a reminder about how the shepherds have often deserted the sheep. I shared my previous reflection and one person picked up on the theme of how institutional religion has deserted the people. What should be a refuge, a banquet amid trials and turmoil according to Psalm 23, has morphed into an exclusive club where only the best of the kowtowing (sheeptowing?) are welcome. Religion has become creeds, codes, rules, and regulations. Follow the rules or you are out.
WGF says, “Welcome. Come as you are—the beloved of God.” It is all right to be yourself because that is how God wants you to be. Thomas Merton wrote that “a tree give glory to God by being a tree.” He goes on to say that we give glory to God by bearing who we are—loving sons and daughters evolving toward greater unity because we all are “already one” in the peace of the Christ. As Paul says in Ephesians, Christ is our peace. In Christ we are one with God, one another and all of creation. Merton says we are already one and we must realize it. We forget who we are before we are born. We have to become what we are!
The Holy Eucharist itself has become for some a wedge. Catholic priests have tried to withhold communion from politicians who vote contrary to the church’s teaching on abortion. I read an account this week about a priest in Louisiana who denied communion to a man at his mother’s funeral because the man was in a gay marriage. The diocese came along with the pooper scooper but the damage had already been done. Kowtowing believers of all faiths seek certitude. As Frank Schaeffer said so bluntly at WGF, “Certainty makes us assholes!” I saw so many examples of people who had been wounded by church, mostly by well-intentioned shepherds who saw it as their duty to protect them from false teachings.
Hearing people reflect on their stories about church prompted me to reflect on my own story. I describe myself as a “recovering Catholic hanging out in the Episcopal Church.” The pre-Vatican II church I grew up in inflicted physical and emotional pain on people—fear and guilt. It was in many ways a violent church both physically and emotionally. The image of the nun hitting knuckles with a three cornered ruler is not fiction. In my adult life, I was wounded deeply when I was banned by the bishop in Venice, Florida. I was to lead a day of reflection on Merton and nonviolence for a parish justice group. I was notified three days before the day of reflection that I would no longer be allowed to speak in the diocese. Why? Because I had spoken the week before in Milwaukee on Merton’s nonviolence at a Call to Action conference. Call to Action endorses equality for women, LGBT justice, and racial justice. Equality for women, including women priests, and full inclusion of the LGBT people is contrary to church doctrine and the sheepfold is closed to them. Get this—the diocese has a staff member who carefully vets every speaker coming to church grounds in the diocese. I later returned to the bishop’s turf and gave a presentation at an Episcopal-Lutheran church. The church was adjacent to a big Catholic church and we put a banner with my name on it up across from the exit driveway announcing the presentation! “Thomas Merton on Church Renewal.” One small victory for this sheep! Soon thereafter I joined the Episcopal community that had introduced me to healing ministry. I realized that I was spitting into the wind if I expected the Catholic Church to welcome women and gays and lesbians into full communion during my lifetime. I admire those who stay in the Catholic fold and work to reform it but it was time for this sheep to go to greener more inclusive pastures. I found a welcoming community and a new home. At the WGF, I was just one more person who had been hurt by institutionalized religion. The WGF provided a space to lament the past, forgive the perps, and get on with living like wild geese—unpredictable, spirit-driven lovers.
Back to the scripture readings. Jeremiah goes from lament to promise. God will take care of God’s people. God will bring them “back to their fold where they will be fruitful and multiply.” God’s people returned to the WGF fold last weekend and God and the open loving welcoming community ministered to them and bestowed countless blessings on them. The wild geese, refugees one and all, had flown in from the margins and found new pastures at WGF. All were welcome. All were welcome in that place. And as Julian of Norwich would say, “All [was] well and all shall be well.”
Paul in Ephesians 2 reminds us that “we have all been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Christ is our peace and we are one in Christ. God’s incarnate love blots out all artificial boundaries. Christ welcomes all into one body—the human body of the Cosmic Christ. Dualistic exclusivist thinking has no place in the kin-dom.
In the Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus understands that we are sheep without a shepherd. Jesus ministered to the crowd. His healing touch restored them to shalom, total wellness, and peace. Unfortunately, the reading leaves out the best part. Jesus fed them from five loaves and two fish. Likewise, at the WGF “all ate and were filled.” We were refreshed and renewed for another year of life on the margins where peace and justice are not often the values that drive our culture.