“Walking A Mile In Her Shoes”
A reflection sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
April 29, 2018
In the sermon I had originally prepared for today I was going to reflect on pruning and church membership, and how Jesus says that he is the true vine, and his Father the vine grower. But as I said to the children a few moments ago, the event I participated in on Friday has had a significant impact on me in the past few days. Walking a mile in her shoes has given me a lot to think about, as a clergy person and as a man, and I’d like to share a few of those thoughts with you today.
First, people of faith in general and the clergy in particular don’t hold the place in society we once did. Fr. John from St. Matthews and I decided to do this walk for the YWCA together and to do it in our traditional clergy apparel. Fr. John and I met downtown, dressed in our robes and stoles, and we walked about a block from where we parked to where we needed to pick up our shoes. As we approached the registration table, the women running the event looked at us with skepticism and a little disbelief. I noticed that their body language also changed—as we came closer, their shoulders tensed up, they moved a little closer to one another, they looked slightly unsure.
After Fr. John and I introduced ourselves, the mood changed. The mood really changed when I showed them the sign I had brought with me. Then it occurred to me: most times when people of faith show up, and show up with signs, they aren’t there to offer support. Take Westboro Baptist Church for example. They show up to military funerals and funerals for police officers and fire fighters with signs that say, “Thank God for dead soldiers,” and, “God Hates America.” At every Pride festival in America, there are always little pockets of Christian people with signs about burning in hell and judgment and condemnation. Just a few Saturdays ago, the day before Easter, people from a church in Enid were standing on the corners at Garriot and Van Buren waving signs that said, “Turn or burn.” What does that even mean? Is that supposed to attract people to the Gospel? Is that the best we can do for the Lord?
Christian people don’t hold the place in society that we once did, and it is not society’s fault but our own. And more importantly than our place in society, the place of God in our world has taken a severe hit because of our behavior. Jesus said in The Sermon on The Mount, “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” When I look at Christianity in America and throughout the world, I’m not seeing a tremendous amount of light. Yes, there are place where God’s light is breaking open the darkness. But instead of being known as follows of Jesus who love generously and abundantly, we are known a club that hates a whole lot of things. So And So church hates gay people; This And That church hates divorced people; this church over here hates anyone who doesn’t love Israel; that church over there hates black people and immigrants and people who don’t speak English. Where is the light? When did it become acceptable for Jesus’ people to hate anything? There is no light in that and it isn’t acceptable, and Jesus expects way more from us. As those women looked at me so skeptically on Friday, I got a taste of what it is like to be the odd person out, and it was terrible. That gave me a split-second glance into what it is like when someone seeks the presence of God in a church and are turned away, put out, or told how much God hates them or is angry with them. To think that the church of Jesus Christ can and does make people feel that way is sickening.
The next thought I’ve had since my experience on Friday has to do with how we define ourselves and others. In the hour or so that I wore those red high heels, I was uncomfortable. Obviously, it was uncomfortable for my feet, but it was more than that. Even standing in a crowd of 40 or so other men who were also wearing women’s shoes, there were moments when I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide. There I was, a rather large man wearing tiny, spiked red heels—I could hear the insults and laughter and snide comments even before they were spoken. We are conditioned from the moment we are born to wear and take part in things and act in certain ways according to physical gender. None of that is wrong. I said in my sermon last week that those are some of the most important things we have to understand ourselves and the world and to live safe, productive lives. But as I again said last Sunday, when we make those things absolute and imagine that God thinks in the same way, we destroy each other and God’s beautiful creation. When someone moves outside the norm and we see that as sinful or evil or bad or ugly, we do with them what we do with every other sinful or evil or bad or ugly thing…we destroy them.
How does God look at us, and when God looks at us, what does God see? Does God see clothes or personal style or hair or makeup or nails? Does God judge us as on-trend or off-trend? Does God look down on folks who shop at thrift stores and up at folks who have personal shoppers?
When the people of Israel cried out to God for a leader who was not dangerous or corrupt or totally inept, God sent Samuel to a man named Jesse who had eleven sons. Jesse put on a real show—he paraded ten of his sons in front of Samuel in all their splendor and finery. Each time a son approached Samuel, God spoke and said, “The Lord has not chosen this one.” After a while, Samuel was frustrated—God had sent him to find Israel’s new king from among Jesse’s sons, and Jesse was running out of sons. Finally, when Samuel asked Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” Jesse replied that he had one more son, the youngest, who was out keeping the sheep. Jesse’s youngest son was named David, and when Samuel saw him, he knew that David was the Lord’s choice to lead Israel into the future. But David wasn’t the tallest; he wasn’t the strongest; he was handsome but his clothes were dirty from the fields. Samuel was confused—how could God chose this one? God speaks to Samuel and says, “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” The Lord looks on the heart.
My final thought from Friday is about how much work we have to do when it comes to treating all people as sacred creations of God. The church of Jesus Christ has a lot of work to do in this regard, too. A recent report from the PC(USA) shows that for 10 of the past 20 years, the gap in pay between male and female clergy has steadily grown. This was not an opinion piece; it was not a survey; it was not a sample study that looked at a set number of pastors in a particular place. Each year, every church in our denomination reports their pastor’s salary…every single church makes that unbiased, factual report. Each church also reports the gender of their pastor, the pastor’s highest educational degree, and the pastor’s years of experience. Again, no opinion here, just facts. The report shows that year after year, the number of female clergy in the PC(USA) has increases, and a majority of those women hold doctoral or other advanced degrees. Yet, year after year, the compensation for these faithful servants of the Lord is lower than their male counterparts even though they are serving similar sized or larger churches.
Is it all about the money? No. There are budget and sustainability concerns, also. But compensation is a crystal clear indication about where the church is on its thinking about women in leadership, intentional or not. There are still some churches in our denomination who will not let women preach or teach, and some that will only allow women to teach and preach if they are married and have their husband’s permission to do so. There is no possible way that this is the will of God. Genesis tells us that, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” God did not make man and then make woman from what was left over—God created us in God’s image, equal from the very beginning. When we treat women as lesser, when we pay them less for the same work or pretend that they are weak and fragile and incapable, we are denying the sacred image of God in them. We’re also making the implicit statement that the perfection of God extends to men and not women, making God some playground school kid that plays favorites. Is that the God we know in Jesus Christ? I don’t think it is.
This is heavy stuff. This is complex, even life-threatening stuff. These are issues that humanity has struggled with from the beginning of time, though it has certainly become a bigger part of our collective consciousness recently. While it would be easy to throw our hands up in the air in frustration over what to do, I believe there are some very simple things we can do to create a more just, peaceful, and loving world, in this community and abroad.
We must recognize that the impact of the Gospel on the world depends in large part on how we live and act within these walls and outside of them. And we have to live in a better way. We are not a Good Friday people—we should not be known for fighting or hatred or darkness or death. We are Easter people, and as Pope John Paul II said, “Alleluia is our song.”—we should be known for feeding the hungry and sheltering the widow and educating children. We should be known for the beauty of our songs and the honesty of our prayers. We should be known as people who love each other even though we are so wonderfully different, and we should show the world how people can live together even when they disagree. Jesus showed us how to do all of these things…we just have to do them.
We must take seriously the fact that what we see, the external and noticeable features of a person, is the most minuscule part of what makes a person a bearer of God’s image. Relationships are the key here, and our Lord loved building relationships with the people around him. At meal tables and in places of worship and in homes, Jesus moved beyond the external and got to know the heart. We can do the same, and in fact, we do these things here on a regular basis. It is the heart that God sees and knows, and when we can know and understand what makes a person tick, what they love and their passions, there is no place for fear. When there is no fear, there is no death, no destruction, no hatred and no war.
We must speak up. Whether we like it or not, the history of our Christian faith is filled with people who speak up and stand up when people of God are being mistreated or beaten down. Their place in the great cloud of witnesses cheers us on to do the same. We must speak up when a woman steps forward with a story of assault and is told that it is her fault and that she is only looking for money. We must speak up when the women we love—our mothers, sisters, companions, daughters—are degraded, paid less, harassed and treated as second-class because they are women. We must speak up when those same evil and dark forces move from women to people of color, the LGBT community, immigrants, people of different faiths, and anyone else who is different. We must speak up because faithfulness to God and Jesus Christ demands it and because the value of our lives is entirely dependent on how much we recognize and fight for the God-given value that is present in every single person.
And we must repent of the ways we have contributed to the problem, either my omission or commission. Not one of us is innocent. In the economy of God, repentance is always met with forgiveness and forgiveness always leads to new life. New life why Jesus came and lived and died and rose again for us.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the good news of the gospel that rings out louder than any other voice or sound you might be hearing today is this: God loves you. And God loves me. And God’s love is so abundant and free that it extends into the lives of every person on this globe. Until every person knows that they are loved by God from the top of their head to the tip of their pointed red toes, we have work to do. It might be uncomfortable; some may say that it is political and Christians shouldn’t be political; it won’t be easy and there may be times when we want to throw in the towel and give up. But it is the work we are called to do through the waters of baptism; it is the work we must do if we want to take part in the life of God; it is the work we must do if we really love God and desire to be disciples of Jesus Christ. We can do this sacred work. We must do this sacred work. And with the abiding presence of God’s Holy Spirit, we will. Amen.