Morning Prayers service with speaker Richard Parker, Senior Fellow and Lecturer, Harvard Kennedy School, on September 15, 2016.
Today marks the twentieth consecutive year I’ve spoken here at Morning Prayers, and so I thank Peter Gomes not for that first invitation, but the courage (and that of Jonathan Walton) to invite me back for nineteen more.
That’s because I’m not what I think of as your average or normal Memorial Church speaker—now more than ever.
However, I’m sure I am at least recognizable to many of you here as a type, albeit an endangered one.
I come from the low-church, high-social-gospel Episcopal tradition, a tradition embodied in Phillips Brooks among others. But we are a tradition that is tragically dying in America, as our never-large tribe that my Jewish wife calls “God’s FROZEN People” marches toward extinction.
But our collective death is not my subject today. Four mornings ago, at this time Monday morning, the phone rang—and I knew instantly why: my oldest and closest friend, Stanley Sheinbaum, the best man at my wedding, my mentor, my second father, was dead.
He was 96, and so his death was not a surprise—but like all deaths of those we love, it was a shock. Here a year ago, I spoke haltingly of another death, that of a lovely young woman I’d known since birth named Sasha, a death which had emotionally been far more tumultuous for me than this. Stanley’s death at 96 came Monday in the order of things; Sasha’s had not, because at 19, she hanged herself—and that had left me bereft, and stolen from me something vital.
Stanley’s death, by contrast, carried with it a gift because his care-givers had called me last Saturday, and I’d flown to Los Angeles three hours later—and Sunday morning had spent two hours with him, and I was able to say what needed to be said, and had heard him—HEARD HIM—as he struggled to answer me with the only three words he could form: “I—love—you.”
Eros and Thanatos—Love and Death—Sigmund Freud numbered as the two most powerful primal forces in human life, and last Sunday morning, holding my friend’s hand, cradling his head against mine, I understood once again why that is so.
The Christian tradition is in some ways built on that pairing, although it is agapic love rather than erotic love that Christian teaching emphasizes. Jesus became the Christ in Death because his resurrection became the promise to us as believers of our own everlasting life, the ultimate gift of love that God provides.
I spent a good deal of time on my long transcontinental flights reflecting on that promise for two reasons: the first because Stanley was a Jew. In the Christian tradition runs a dark stain of antisemitism, as my friend Jim Carroll has unerringly pointed out. It is a stain that has too often betrayed what should be the deepest Christian truth—that Jews are not “doomed”, as the anti-Semites would have it, because they fail to embrace Christ as Messiah, but are betrayed by those anti-Semitic, self-deceiving Christians, because too many of us as Christians have ignored the centrality and equality of Yahweh’s unique covenant with the Jews.
Stanley’s three words, his final mitzvah to me, were thus both deeply personal and spoken to all of us, an affirmation not only of how love had bound him to me and me to him, but how through love we are all bound together.
The second reflection I offer today is this, because I stand before you for now as an ex-Christian, driven out of my long-ordinary habits of worship and belief by Sasha’s suicide and the inability of my faith’s eloquent liturgies and elegant rituals to give me justification for what she did—and more important, justification for my continuing to believe that in the Church I could heal my broken heart.
Today in fact is the first time in more than a year that I’ve entered a traditional house of worship.
Stanley’s death Monday did not end my alienation from The Church, but his words at least have brought me to a place where perhaps I can at least for a time stand outside its doors, and try to listen to the noise within in order to meaningfully hear those same three words he spoke.
So count today in my life not as my reassuring affirmation of The Church as the common dwelling place for Christians but of Love as home to us all—and as my hope that perhaps I can someday soon reenter The Church as one room in the larger human home we must call Love.