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September 8, 2004
Today's eMo is actually two meditations on texts that will be read in churches this Sunday. The first, the usual sermon preparation eMo, is a bit out of the ordinary this week: it is part of my foreword for the upcoming book Saving Salvation: The Amazing Evolution of Grace by Stephen Smith, to be published by Morehouse in March 2005. The second is intended for preachers who wish to focus on the work of the Church among the suffering through the Ministry of Episcopal Relief and Development. As with all the eMos, preachers and teachers are welcome to borrow, with the usual attribution. No further permission is necessary.


Foreword: Saving Salvation

And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them."
Luke 15:1

It is some years ago now: a Friday afternoon, busy as usual, full of the interruptions that form the major part of a parish priest’s life -- our parishes pay us to be interrupted, my friend Philip says, and I think he may have something there. The phone rang and it was for "the pastor" -- someone I didn’t know, then, and probably someone who wanted money: professional mendicants often call churches late on Friday afternoons.

But it was not a mendicant. It was a young woman, calling from somewhere upstate. She and her partner had moved up there from the Bronx last year, she said, and they had found a church they liked. They loved going to church together: my caller had grown up going to church with the beloved grandmother who raised her, and it meant a lot to her to have church in her new life. The people were friendly and the pastor was friendly. For several months they attended services, made friends, helped out with various projects in the church. They looked forward to Sunday mornings. The pastor was a good preacher, and they liked the music. They could imagine themselves making a permanent spiritual home there, and they wanted a spiritual home.

And so they made an appointment with the pastor to talk with him about joining his church. They came to his study on the appointed evening, and he received them kindly. He would be delighted to receive them into his congregation, he said. He had a question, though: he knew that they shared an address but had different last names. They were not --how should he put it -- living in a lesbian relationship, were they?

Well, yes, we are, one of the women said. Nothing had ever been said, but wasn't it sort of obvious? And people had been so friendly with them, at the church picnic, and at the yardwork day. Nobody had ever questioned them about their living arrangements.

The pastor's demeanor was still kind. In that case, he said with real regret in his voice, I'm afraid I cant accept you as members of our church. You are living in a state of sin. I'm sorry.

The two young women never returned to that church, of course. They were humiliated to think that the people who had been so friendly and kind to them would not have received them at all had they known who they really were. A state of sin, the pastor they so admired had said. It had been hard for each of them, growing up, to come to terms with their sexuality. Other kids had been cruel to each of them in school sometimes, and that cruelty had stung like a lash. It had been hard telling their families; there were still family members who did not know. But at the little country church, it had seemed that an unconditional welcome in Christ had been offered to them unconditionally. But no. There were strings. They were not acceptable to God.

Her partner was bitter. Who needs church, anyway, she said angrily. Bunch of hypocrites. But my caller remembered the comfort of her church at home, remembered her grandmother's faith, remembered the white Bible she had been given as a girl, the very one she carried to church now. She remembered safety and love and learning about holiness. And she found our number in the telephone directory and called me late on a Friday afternoon, wanting to know if there was a church that could find the two of them in its understanding of salvation.

I told her a little about the Episcopal Church -- hers was Baptist, so the two experiences were very different in some respects. I told her about the sacraments, about the centrality of the Eucharist, about how every baptized person is a member of the Body of Christ and you donut need to do anything more about "joining" than that. I told her about our relationship to the inspired word of God in scripture, how we take it seriously but not always literally. I told her that we valued diversity, that ours was a church in which the love of God is understood to be stronger than the barriers that human beings erect to protect themselves from one another. That we don't think we have all the answers, and that we think that God's will is often a mysterious thing. That was a lot to tell a very young woman in a lot of pain, but she listened with quiet desperation. And then she spoke.

"But -- are you saved?"

And I heard in her voice the weight of a thousand sermons about Hell, about the wrath of God. I heard the voices of a thousand thousand good and kind people, convinced that they served a God who decreed a fiery Hell for many, whose invitation into heaven depended primarily on our having a careful and correct belief system and a scrupulous record where certain rules are concerned. I knew that my caller understood being saved to involve a specific moment in which grace came, the hour and minute and second of which was known and remembered, I was saved at 11:17 the morning of April 27 when I accepted Jesus Christ as my Personal Savior, and before that moment I was not saved and would have gone to Hell if I had died.

All of these thoughts took just a moment. She was still waiting for an answer to her question. "But, are you saved?"

And, late on a Friday afternoon, full of sins I knew about and of other sins I had not yet understood, the pastor of a churchful of people who were sinners, too; full, also, of the stunning awareness that the grace of God was flooding my little office at that very moment, shining, pooling its light on the floor, invincible, bigger than any sin I had or anyone else had ever had, lifting everything, I knew the answer. Are you saved? Yes, I told her. Yes, we are.


And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them."
Luke 15:1

A seminary student in Zambia knows from the beginning that much is expected of him. Already his conduct must be exemplary to others. Already people begin to treat him as the spiritual leader his education is preparing him to be.

Those prepared to offer Kennedy Kazeze this kind of automatic respect
Must have been surprised -- perhaps even offended -- at the passion that
that seized him early in his course of study at St. John the Evangelist Seminary in Mindolo, Kitwe, when he took train course on HIV/AIDS offered by Episcopal Relief and Development and Medical Assistance Programs (MAP) International. Aimed especially at church leaders, the MAP program seeks to educate the about AIDS transmission and prevention, reasoning that their informed voices will begin a communal conversation about the topic in Zambia, where HIV/AIDS infection rates are very high.

"To say I was challenged would be an understatement," Kazeze says. "I was converted -- to the ministry of AIDS." Why were Zambians suffering in such record numbers? And why were so many young wives infected? He decided to seek answers to those questions in which he had a natural entree: his own home in the Copper Belt of Northwestern Zambia. Copper mining is the main component of the Zambian economy, and the rough world of the mines contains all the elements that contribute to a high risk of AIDS: many married and single men far from home, a thriving system of prostitution, the plentiful presence of cheap alcohol. A recent recession has cost many miners their jobs: add idleness and depression to the factors increasing the likelihood of unsafe practices that lead to infection. Kennedy Kazeze quickly made a name for himself among the miners and mining officials, and is in demand as a speaker on what is true and what is false about a disease about which many dangerous myths abound.

Kennedy Kazeze will continue his education -- his ambition is to pursue a d Ph.D., conducting research and writing about the ways in which the cultural practices of his people affect their well-being, and how his people can summon the power to change. "Just knowing something does not mean you can or wish to do something about it," he says.

Many in Africa -- and this includes many in the churches -- came late to the table in the worldwide discussion of AIDS, at the cost of millions of lives. AIDS was about sex, and church people had been raised not to discuss it. Kennedy Kazeze is right; facts aren't everything. But they are, often, the birth of hope. For if we know the problem, we can approach the solution.

To learn more about the work of Episcopal Relief and Development, visit, or telephone 1-800-334-7626.
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