Barbara Harris, Clarity, and Kindness


Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

In the name of God: who brings us together, who holds us together, and who sends us out for ministry in the world, together.  Amen.

My mind has been on Bishop Barbara Harris a lot here lately.  She came up as a clue on Jeopardy last week, so every Episcopalian on social media seems to have chimed in about that.  Again, I thought of her when hanging some new art in my office earlier this week.  One piece that I finally hung up is a reproduction of an icon of her that was commissioned by the Diocese of Missouri.  Then, she came to mind again, because just yesterday was the anniversary of her ordination and consecration as a Bishop – 34 years.  There were even a few other, smaller times when she crept into my thoughts and attention this week.

My friends who are spiritually intuitive will tell you – when someone is breaking through your consciousness repeatedly like that – it’s a sign.  It’s time to give them some attention.

If you don’t know about Bishop Harris, you should.  She was the first woman who was ordained a Bishop in the Episcopal Church, or even anywhere in the global Anglican Communion – anywhere in the 2,000-year tradition of Apostolic Succession.  So her ordination was a really big deal.  The security officials at her ordination insisted that she wear a bulletproof vest during the liturgy because there were so many credible threats against her life.  There was even a plan in place to have three other bishops join her in the ambulance if she were shot, so that the ordination could continue, no matter what.

Bishop Harris was a spitfire if there ever was one.  She was a short, African American woman from Philadelphia.  She had piercing wit and wisdom that could cut through anything thrown at her.  She smoked like a chimney and cussed like she didn’t care, because the truth is, she didn’t.

I was at a small dinner party with her one time, back in 2008.  It was just before the Lambeth Conference of Bishops that year – where all the Bishops of the Anglican Communion around the world come together once every 10 years for study and relationship-building.  I would be attending the conference that year working with some lobbyists for LGBT inclusion, but it was the first time in nearly two decades that Bishop Harris wasn’t attending.  She attended in 1988 when she was elected, but not yet consecrated.  And she attended again 1998 when, of the thousand or so bishops present, she was one of 11 women.  But, by this Lambeth Conference she was retired and wouldn’t be attending.

Wanting to engage with her, I asked, “Bishop Harris, will you miss being at the Lambeth Conference this year?”  I’ll never forget her response.  “Hell no!” - she practically screamed through her smoker’s rasp.  “I wouldn’t go if Jesus Christ himself was going to be there handing out thousand-dollar bills!”

We all laughed, because she just had that way of putting things just so…  But the fact of the matter is, one of the biggest points of the Lambeth Conference is the role it plays in helping to build relationships around the church.  For Bishop Harris, though, interacting with her colleagues from around the world only served to further damage the relationships.  She told stories of how other bishops were downright cruel to her.  Speaking about her as if she weren’t present.  Refusing to acknowledge that she was, in fact, a bishop.  Telling her to her face that she didn’t belong, and should go home and find a husband.  It was nothing short of a hostile environment.

I thought of that story again this week, because in this Gospel reading, the teachings of Jesus, as challenging as they are to hear, have a common theme: they are about our relationships with each other.  They are a call to action from Jesus to do better than the bare minimum.  To go above and beyond to not just tick the boxes of proper behavior, but to really honor our relationships with each other by thinking deeply about the spirit of the law – the ways these rules are meant to lift us up into our better selves.

It’s not enough to avoid killing people, or to honor your relationship with your spouse, or even to tell the truth.  We are called by God to do all of that and more – and not just because Jesus said so, but because that was God’s intention all along: that we love one another.  These are ways of living together in love.

Finally, there is this last line.  “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’”.  You shouldn’t even need to swear to the truth because your “yes” should just mean yes.  Your “no” should just mean no.  It’s no more complicated than that.

How many times do we attempt to skirt around challenging conversations with people by searching for loopholes in our language or failing to say what we really believe to be true.  Of course, we’re not called to be unnecessarily mean to one another.  It’s not about honestly-held opinions wielded as a weapon.  But it is about being real with one another.

Bren√© Brown says in her book Dare to Lead, that in her office one of the things she insists upon is direct, honest communication.  If something isn’t working it doesn’t help anyone to try to skirt around it.  In fact, it only leads to resentment.  We’re not being nice when we obscure important communications to make life less uncomfortable.  She says, “Clear is kind.  Unclear is unkind.”  We want to be kind to one another, but communicating our needs and expectations without clarity isn’t kind – it’s actually the opposite of kind.  It may be more comfortable in the moment, but it isn’t kind.

Bishop Harris was good at that.  She could be clear, even when it wasn’t comfortable.  She was like Jesus in that way.  Following Jesus isn’t about making everyone happy.  It’s more about kindness.  Jesus doesn’t call us to comfort, but to kindness.  Some of what we read today may make us uncomfortable.  But striving to incorporate the teachings of Christ into our lives will make us more kind.  Whether we like it or not.  Amen.