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  • Writer's pictureJared Cramer

The Dangers of the Yeast of Religious Purity and Political Power, the Call to Make Safe Spaces

Below is the sermon our rector, Fr. Jared Cramer, preached this year at the Fourth Annual Community PRIDE Worship service, in advance of the Second Annual Grand Haven Pride Festival.


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


One of the parts of life in The Episcopal Church is that we believe in celebrating the saints of the church. We have a book, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, which sets out a calendar so that when we have mass on a weekday, we know what saint to commemorate and remember. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, where canonization is decided through a process in the Vatican, our calendar is decided by General Convention, a gathering of lay people, clergy, and bishops from our church that meets once every three years. A couple years ago I did a presentation for the Lakeshore GSA (Gender, Sexuality, and Allies) Youth Group–a group for teenagers in the queer community and allies to gather in a safe space in our church every other Thursday night. The presentation was on some of my favorite queer saints.


Because, yes, there are saints who were queer. There is the 12th century St. Aelred of Rievaulx, who is the patron saint of many gay advocacy groups. There is the gender-bending and cross-dressing St. Joan of Arc. The Roman Catholic Irish Archbishop Malachy of Armagh died in the arms of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and they were buried together after St. Bernard died. Madre Juana de la Cruz was a 16th century Spanish abbess who believed God changed her gender while she was in the womb. Because of her gender-bending sermons about Christ and God, the Catholic Church cut short her process to sanctification, but Pope Francis restored her to the status of “Venerable” in 2015. Father Mychal Judge was a member of Dignity, the oldest and largest national lay movement for LGBTQ Catholics. Father Mychal defied a church boycott oof the first gay-inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade in Queens, showing up in his habit. He was a chaplain to the New York firefighters and the first recorded victim of the 9/11 attacks. Our church’s calendar celebrates Mother Pauli Murray, a priest in our church who was attracted to women and who also identified as a man trapped in a woman’s body, taking hormone treatments. She was an amazing champion for human rights as an author, lawyer, and an Episcopal priest.


Yes, there are numerous queer saints in the history and life of the Christian Church. And this fact alone underscores why it is so very important for the church not just to tolerate or even welcome queer people. Queer people of faith are already part of the church, already often models of sanctity and discipleship. We need queer people of faith to welcome us, the rest of the church, into the fullness of the Body of Christ.


Anyways, when putting together the liturgy today I naturally turned to Lesser Feasts and Fasts to see whose feast was today, June 8. When I saw the saint who was listed, I did a double take. As many of you may have already noticed from the cover of the worship bulletin, today is the Feast of St. Melania the Elder. (I bet you didn’t expect to come to a Pride Worship service celebrating St. Melania, did you?) This is a different Melania though. Melania the Elder was born in Spain in the mid-fourth century as a member of one of the wealthiest families in the Roman Empire. She married young but by the time she was twenty-two her husband and two of her three sons had died. Rather than continue with the life of a Roman Patrician, she converted to Christianity, gave her son in to the care of a guardian, and left for Egypt where she joined the Desert Fathers and Mothers.


The story of the Desert Fathers and Mothers is fascinating. When Rome became the legal religion of the Roman Empire, there were some who had severe misgivings about the blending of Christianity with power and privilege. These men and women went to live in the desert near Alexandria in Egypt, seeking to live an austere life and to find a closer union with God. After about six months in the desert, persecution broke out against the men and women living in the desert, but Melania did not abandon them. She used her considerable wealth to support and care for them. She eventually journeyed to Jerusalem where she built a convent and a monastery on the Mount of Olives. These communities practiced hospitality for the pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land, something especially important for women, as the journey was particularly dangerous for them. Throughout her life St. Melania the Elder was theologically outspoken, urging tolerance and unity among the followers of Jesus. Later in life, when visiting her son in Rome, she inspired her granddaughter, also named Melania, to enter the monastic life as well. The young woman went back to Jerusalem with her grandmother, eventually being known as Melania the Younger (which is why our saint for today is Melania the elder).


Now it is, of course, an utter and complete coincidence that today, the day of the Second Grand Haven Pride Festival is also the Feast of St. Melania the elder. And yet, I find profound inspiration in St. Melania’s story for today. She was a woman who did not find her primary identity in being a homemaker (to the chagrin of people then and far too many people even in our own time. St. Melania found her primary identity in being a theologian and leader in the church. She saw the wedding between power and Christianity and turned from it, even though she had married into a Roman Patrician family and could have benefited. Instead, St. Melania the Elder put her wealth and privilege to work in caring for others. She sought peace in the church and urged those who were more interested in fighting to be reconciled in Christ.


In the Gospel reading appointed for today, the disciples realize they have forgotten to bring bread and worry that there might not be enough. Jesus cautions them, which they don’t understand, and then he proceeds to ask them why they are hardening their hearts. He reminds them of the miraculous feeding of the four thousand and the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, and how there had been so much left over. At first glance, this Gospel seems to be about Jesus reminding the disciples to have faith, to know that Jesus can always meet their needs, even by miraculous action.


And yet, that’s very likely not what this Gospel story is about. You can see that in the words of the caution Jesus gives them, urging them, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” The disciples were the ones who thought his caution was about the lack of bread, but Jesus said that assumption demonstrated their lack of understanding.


You see, in Mark’s Gospel the extension of Israel’s salvation as the chosen people to those who had historically been excluded by the religious leadership is a fundamental thrust of Jesus’s ministry. In the first chapters of Mark, as he heals the leper, dines with tax collectors and sinners, and heals on the sabbath, the religious leaders are increasingly angry because he is not following the rigid boundaries that they believe are essential for salvation. In the feedings of the multitudes, some of those who gathered and were fed were Gentiles, those who were not Jewish and of the chosen people. In Mark, it was Jesus pushing outside the boundaries of the Jewish leaders that led for them to seek to destroy him, an effort that resulted in his crucifixion.


And so, in this story the disciples are not criticized by Jesus for their lack of faith (for example, a lack of faith that Jesus could provide for them) but for the hardness of their hearts. Jesus’s charges that they are not remembering, his warning that they are hard of heart, these are the exact same charges which Jesus levels against the religious in Mark who resist the expansive salvation he is bringing.


So, in our Gospel, after Jesus tells them that he is once more traveling into Gentile territory, the disciples worry that there will not be enough bread. They didn’t bring extra loaves because every other time they had extra loaves, Jesus blessed and broke them and gave them to the crowds, all those other people who weren’t a part of their group. They think the bread, the ministry of Jesus, is theirs as a Jewish people. But Jesus wants them to learn that his ministry is not a zero-sum game. There will always be enough, including when they encounter those outside of Judaism and need to feed them as well. There will always be enough to share bread, to share love, to share salvation. When we are faithful to Christ’s call to join him in an ever-expanding ministry of salvation, we will not run out, there will be an abundance of leftovers.


The church today is, of course, not that far off from the anxiety of the disciples of Jesus in this Gospel reading. It so often seeks to hoard salvation, insisting God’s love is only for those who meet the expectations of the religious without recognizing that God’s love in Christ was poured out abundantly, constantly transgressing borders of religion, race, gender, and nationality. And so, yes, even today the church must hear the warnings of Christ, we must “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”


Because the yeast of the Pharisees is that small germ of an idea that religious purity is what saves us, and it is a yeast that can infect the whole of the body. The yeast of the pharisees wants strong boundaries for who is in and who is out, even as Jesus tears those boundaries down through his death on the cross.


And the yeast of Herod is the small germ of an idea that political power is what will protect the church. This is what Melania saw when she fled Rome to live in a simple life in the desert focused on caring for others: power and wealth are a dangerous combination, and the church is always the least faithful when it has an abundance of both. But when the church abandons its privilege, when it doesn’t worry, for instance, about standing with queer people at a pride festival because what if people get upset and stop giving… when the church flees the temptations of wealth and political power to be present with the marginalized, then the church is simply doing what Jesus did throughout this ministry.


We are called, beloved children of God, like Melania, to create homes and safe spaces, not on the Mount of Olives, but all around the dunes of Grand Haven. We are called to create spaces where those who are weary, those who are tired of the judgment and hypocrisy of organized religion, those who have been wounded by Christians with political power, where all these people can find a safe place. Because at this table, beloved, there is always enough for all to be fed. Amen.

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