Saturday, 29 January 2011

Sermon for Epiphany 4 – 30th January 2011 - A response to the murder of David Kato

The world is changing rapidly and with it the nature of religious adherence. All the institutional churches have seen people drift away from regular attendance and involvement with their churches. We can no longer assume that our children will go to church just because they were brought up going to church. The social pressure and expectation that perhaps made some people go to church when they would have liked to do otherwise has to all intensive purposes gone and nothing has taken its place. I am very conscious that though there are new faces in our churches there are also a lot of old and familiar ones that are noticeable by their absence, and it is not that they have died, but rather given up going to church.

You could of course blame the rector and I know that you would not say such to me but inevitably clergy do ask questions of themselves when numbers begin to fall off and I am not so arrogant as to think that indeed perhaps there are some who have left who might still be here if I had done things differently.
But a church is more than the rector and I suspect that even if I was the greatest preacher this side of the Shannon things would be little different. There is only so much one person can do.

I think the change that is needed is one of rediscovering and recovering something that was there at the very beginning of the early Church and that is the essence of Faith which was not a system of beliefs but a response to Jesus. As the centuries have progressed Christians in defining themselves have begun to answer the wrong question. The most important dimension of faith is not ‘what’ we believe but ‘how’ we believe. The great Creeds which were designed to guarantee the unity and uniformity of the Church had the unfortunate effect of totally supplanting the relational element of faith with a doctrinal one.

Make no mistake creeds are necessary but when they become an end in themselves they become idols and Jesus as the contemporary theologian Robin Myers puts it becomes a ‘missing person’. Yes he is mentioned in the creeds but only as a dogmatic definition. You cannot have a relationship with a dogma – you can only have a relationship with a person.

The Old Testament Prophet Micah in today’s lesson reminds us of what is at the core of our faith:
“what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
As well as being a beautiful and poetic statement it is as concise a description of discipleship as one could ask for.
The Gospel reading today which was the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5 also put this relational faith at the forefront. They are not a list of theological doctrines but rather they celebrate what God has in store for those who acknowledge their need of God and can trust in his care for them. They turn the values of the world quite literally upside down. Here I quote Robin Myers again in a phrase which I think nails it!
“The Beatitudes bless those who are powerless but worthy” where the world acclaims those who are “powerful and worthless”.

The Anglican Communion as you will be aware is wrestling on an ongoing basis about what it believes and what it stands for. The Primates meeting in Dublin this very day are bogged down in the interpretation of a few verses of Scripture and seem destined to remain caught up in the what at the expense of the how. There is a price to be paid for it and indeed blood has been spilt this very week.

David Kato was an Anglican in Uganda who happened to be gay He served as advocacy officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda.
Kato was murdered on Wednesday of this week, clubbed to death shortly after winning a lawsuit against a magazine which had published his name and photograph identifying him as gay and calling for him to be executed. Terrible and all as this murder was there was more pain to come.

The following are selected extracts from an eyewitness account by a retired Anglican Bishop, Bishop Christopher Senyonjo who attended David Kato’s funeral. Incidentally the account was transcribed by an Irish Anglican cleric Canon Albert Ogle who prepared me for Confirmation over 30 years ago:

Ten miles from a Ugandan blood-stained home, 300 friends, fellow activists from the LGBT community, his mourning mother and family joined foreign dignitaries and embassy staff to pay their respects to David Kato.
Since Kato was an Anglican, the local parish church of Nagojje was responsible for his funeral rites to be read from the Book of Common Prayer. Although tributes have been pouring into the Kato family from President Barack Obama and other international leaders, the Church of Uganda sent no priest, no bishop, but a Lay Reader to conduct the service.

Bishop Christopher Senyonjo arrived in his purple cassock accompanied by his wife Mary and let the master of ceremonies know he would like to say a few words at some point in the service.
The Lay Reader began to make inappropriate remarks condemning homosexuality quite graphically and stating the Church of Uganda’s position that homosexuality was a sin and against the Bible. The crowd began to cheer him on and the bishop described the event as turning into an anti-gay rally. The bishop was never called upon to speak. He felt for the LGBT community having to suffer yet another public humiliation.

This kind of rabble rousing and hatred has been the daily diet for LGBT people in Uganda, causing a media frenzy from pulpits and scandalous tabloid like Uganda’s Rolling Stone that likely caused this senseless murder. Even in such a brutal death, the Church was at it again.
The anger and frustration of the LGBT community and its straight allies finally erupted when a young lesbian who worked with David at SMUG called Kasha seized the mic and the Lay Reader’s diatribe against LGBT people was finally replaced by the voices of those whom David fought and died for.
This moment will be remembered as a kind of “Stonewall” when the community said to the oppressors – Enough! Stop the lies!

The Church of Uganda, a member of the Anglican family of churches to which I belong, took a pastoral opportunity for healing and reconciliation with family members and LGBT people and allies and turned the event into an anti-gay political rally. Following this horrific incident with the Lay Reader who condemned the LGBT community, Bishop Christopher, as a bishop of the church and wearing his purple cassock, walked behind the coffin carried by David’s friends and family to the graveside. There, although he was disinvited by the Church to speak at the funeral, he found a way to bring words of comfort to the mourners and said the final blessing over David’s battered remains.

As the Anglican Primates gather in Dublin, Ireland, the question they must ask themselves and ponder this weekend is what kind of Anglicanism are we really representing? What are we proud of from David Kato’s life and the rites our church provided over his dead body? And what are we ashamed of?

It seems to me that the official response of the Anglican Church in Uganda was so caught up in the ‘what’ of Faith that the ‘how’ was obliterated.

All of this calls to mind the reflections of Barbara Brown Taylor, an American Anglican priest in her book ‘Leaving Church’
She deals very insightfully with the current bitter divisions within Anglicanism over sexuality and scriptural interpretation:

Whenever people aim to solve their conflicts with one another by turning to the Bible: defending the dried ink marks on the page becomes more vital than defending the neighbour…………human beings never behave more badly towards one another than when they believe they are protecting God. …..The whole purpose of the Bible is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.” Reflecting on fundamentalist Christianity Taylor comments that the history of Christianity is about “beholding what was beyond belief” and that for us today “to confess all that we do not know is at least as sacred an activity as declaring what we think we do know”. This same tension was leading Taylor to the realisation that she “wanted out of the belief business and back into the beholding business….to recover the kind of faith that has nothing to do with being sure what I believe and everything to do with trusting God to catch me though I am not sure of anything”
Or again as the Prophet Micah proclaimed:

“what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”


Unknown said...

His murder wasnt sexually inclined. If u watch uganda local news, almost 1 person is killed in mukono on a daily and many wounded. Its currently the most notorious district in uganda. It was a robbery related murder. Come on western world, for once cut us some slack!

June Butler said...

Stephen, yours is, indeed, a wonderful sermon for the times. Thank you.

Stephen Neill said...

Thanks Mimi :)

Obed247 - either way the response of the Church is the key issue!

JCF said...

I believe a culture reaps what it sows, obed247.

A Ugandan newspaper felt free to publish Kato's picture, w/ the phrase (pertaining to Kato and LGBTs) "Hang Them" (Kato had to SUE for damages, but the damage had been done!)

It should not surprise Ugandans that, in a "Hang Them" culture, there is so much violence.

[And for the record, obed, I levy the SAME kind of charges at my own US culture. We, too, permit pictures of gun-sights over Congressional districts, and then weep&wail when the corresponding Congresswoman is SHOT. Moreover, since people from my country have been involved in fomenting anti-LGBT hatred in your country, it is (US) Americans who bear the larger burden of guilt! >:-(]

Jim said...

Obed, if we grant for a moment that the specifics of the murderer and his motives are unproven, what we are left with is the utter failure of the hierarchy to provide anything like a pastoral Christian response to the fact of the murder.

If, heaven forbid, someone you know is killed tomorrow and I understand that Uganda has massive problems with economic violence, you will expect a funeral that has some dignity and decency. You might even expect a priest to show up! That is all, just show up and read the service.

Uganda showed its complete lack of heart and Christian caring and you want to discuss the motive of the killer. I suspect we won't ever know because the government like the church does not much care. His killer will likely never be located, tried or convicted. That too speaks of a toxic church, and a toxic culture.

That the so-called Christian Right (which is neither Christian nor right) helps to create the toxicity is shameful. That Dr. Williams is capable of claiming that ABp Orombi and his gang of vested thugs are part of the Anglican Communion while putting down the ministry of PBp. Katherine and TEC is blasphemy.


Wormwood's Doxy said...

Come on western world, for once cut us some slack!

I will cut you some slack when Uganda shuts down "Rolling Stone" magazine and sends its "editor" to jail for inciting violence.

I will cut Uganda some slack when every senior government official--from the President to the local police chief--publicly condemns violence against LGBTs and when the Ugandan parliament repudiates the "death to gays" bill and sends David Bahati back to whatever cesspool he crawled out of.

I will cut Uganda some slack when the Anglican Bishops in Uganda issue a joint statement condemning violence against LGBTs and start preaching that message from pulpits across the nation.

Until then, I will believe that Ugandans are happy to see the kind of violence perpetrated against David Kato. I will continue to believe that you excuse the inexcusable and sit silently by while murder is done in the name of God. And I will continue to believe--based on plenty of evidence--that Ugandans are happy to do the dirty work of American evangelicals. (That same brand of American evangelicals who, just a few decades ago, could be found standing proudly underneath the trees where they lynched "uppity" blacks for trumped up reasons.)

My grandmother always taught me that I would be known by the company I keep, Obed. Your country is in bed with some really nasty folks. Kick them out, protect the dignity of EVERY human being, and THEN I'll cut you some slack.