What really happened at St. John’s Church on Easter Sunday

I spent Easter Sunday the way my family has spent Easter Sunday for the last six years – attending services at our church, St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square.  One of the reasons we still attend St. John’s, rather than finding a parish closer to our home in Fairfax that doesn’t require a 20 mile commute every Sunday morning, is the Rev. Luis Leon, our rector.

Luis is one of the smartest men I know, and he has always been a welcoming figure to me and our family.   When my wife and I got engaged, he did our marital counseling.  When we got married, he presided over the service.  He baptized my son.  I will never forget him walking around the church, holding our son during his baptismal service.  At the end, as he handed Nick back to his mother, he said to me, “I know if that boy ever cries, I know it’s going to be your fault, because he’s a little angel.”  It still makes me laugh when I remember it.

Our church sits next to the White House, so we have the honor of hosting the President a few times a year.  He joined us again on Sunday for Easter.  And, as usual, he brought with him two things that are ubiquitous of the presidency – press and controversy.

In his sermon, Luis made reference to “captains of the religious right,” and it was reported in many places that he accused the religious right of wanting to keep blacks in the back of the bus, wanting to keep women in the kitchen, and immigrants on their side of the border.  Conservatives erupted in outrage.  The news was originally reported by the Weekly Standard, hit Drudge’s front page and was picked up by Breitbart.com and a number of other outlets.  The story was basically the same – look at this guy race baiting on Easter, pandering to the President.

That’s not what happened.  It’s a mischaracterization of what Luis said, and it was certainly not what he meant.  But that didn’t stop people from jumping to ridiculous conclusions and vilifying him, our church, and Episcopalians in general.

Sunday night, I perused the blogs after an excellent Easter dinner and saw that my pastor – my friend – was being accused of being the next Jeremiah Wright.  They called him a “dunce,” an “oaf,” and a “clown,” even going so far as to say that he’s a “false prophet,” or a “fake Christian” pastor, and that he was preaching “Satan’s deception.”

This isn’t a joke.  This is just the tip of the iceberg of the vile hate and disgusting nonsense that came out of people on Easter because of what they thought my pastor said.  Can you imagine someone saying that about your pastor?

The worst part, at least for me, was that what he said made absolute sense to those of us who were there.   Luis was preaching on our Gospel lesson for the day, which came from John 20: 11-18, where Mary Magdalene sees Christ for the first time since he rose from the dead.  She refers to him as “rabbouni” (teacher) and he tells her she must not cling to him.  Luis explained that passage by talking about the dangers of nostalgia, and how Christ was explaining to Mary that she must not live in the past because we cannot go back to the past, no matter how much we may want to.  Christ knew that because he came, died for our sins and was resurrected, nothing would ever be the same again.  Mary and the disciples needed to understand that, and she did – when she tells the disciples of what she saw, she tells them “I saw the Lord” not “I saw our rabbi.”  His sermon was a message of hope, not hate, that he was delivering to our congregation.

But it was in this discussion of the dangers of nostalgia that he made the comments that created all the conservative hate on Easter.  He made the point that he is frustrated when  “captains of the religious right” want to call us back to times they say were better, but that those times were also times when blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, when women were kept in the kitchen and immigrants on their side of the border.  The point was simple and one I’ve said to many people myself – those of us who pine for the “good old days” need to keep in mind that those good old days weren’t always that great for everybody else.

Was that hatred?  No.  Was it an attack on the religious right?  No.  Was it pandering to Obama?  No – he gave the same sermon at both the 9 AM and 11 AM services and used the same line in both (I was a lay reader at the 9 AM, so I heard that version – it was the same as the 11 AM based on the pool reporters notes) .  Was it a straw man attack?  I don’t think so.  Pat Robertson, among others, has long lamented how society is more immoral today than it was in the past, especially when talking about gay marriage and other social issues.  Luis’s point is that those people are living in the past and ignoring that in that past that may have been better for some, it wasn’t better for all.  We can’t go back, no matter how much we want to.  What we can do is make the future better, and through Christ, we have that opportunity.

This wasn’t a political speech. One reference to the “captains of the religious right” doesn’t make it a political speech any more than Barack Obama quoting scripture in a State of the Union address makes that a sermon.

Luis Leon is a good man, a man of God, and my friend.  It hurt me to see the vile things that people were saying about him based on one misreported, out-of-context sentence in a fifteen minute sermon that had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the importance of the resurrection of Christ on Easter, for Christians, our most holy day of the year.  It was unnecessary and unproductive.

But I hope we can learn from it.

What happened here is illustrative to me as to why we Republicans keep losing elections.  The bitterness, the bile, the hatred that came out because of what people thought Luis said – not what he said, but what they thought he said – was eye-opening.   For too many, politics has stopped being about moving the country forward, but has become a bitter personal fight between two sides who both think the other is pure evil.  As a politician, I’m used to being attacked by people who disagree with me.  But seeing this kind of vitriol leveled at a man of God whom nobody really knew outside of those of us in Washington who know him and our church, was just unprecedented to me.  If that’s how we on the right treat someone like Dr. Leon because he said something we don’t agree with, we don’t deserve to win another election.   This kind of behavior is unacceptable.   It turns people off because we look like we’re so scared of another opinion we have to go beyond disagreement to personal destruction of anyone who disagrees.

I am proud of my rector and I’m proud of my church.  Don’t believe the nonsense you’ve been reading or seeing in the press about us and about Rev. Leon.  But for those of you who, like Thomas, need to see things with your own eyes, I’d like to invite you to attend services with me.  Any given Sunday, you’ll find us at St. John’s and we’d be happy to have you.