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June 07, 2009

George Tiller and God’s Love

The following is the sermon preached by the Very Rev. Jep Streit, Dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul (Episcopal), Boston on June 7, 2009. Courtesy ** Naomi **.
George Tiller and God’s Love A Sermon Preached by the Very Rev. Jep Streit June 7, 2009 It is easy to feel outraged. A man was murdered in his church. In his church. George Tiller was in church not simply worshipping God, but on this Sunday, serving as a greeter, an usher. He was welcoming people as they entered the church, coming into the house of God. And one of the people he welcomed into God’s house shot and killed him. I feel outrage at the murderer, but I also feel like Isaiah, who had a vision of God while he was serving in the temple in Jerusalem and whose initial reaction is, “Woe is my, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips dwelling among a people of unclean lips.” What is happening in our nation, to our people? How did we get to this place, this escalation of hateful rhetoric and disrespect so that words are not enough, but people feel compelled to acts of violence and murder? But while outrage may be justified, I don’t want to talk from a place of anger and self- righteousness. That only increases the sense of otherness, of us and them. Instead I want to tell a story that I heard this week, I can’t say how or why, I can only tell you that it is true. I promise you that it is true. Please listen.
It is a story about George Tiller, about his work, what he did and how he did it. You may have wondered, as I did, why someone would make it a part of his work to perform late term abortions. Why would a doctor feel compelled to do this? Even as we sensed how wrong his murder was, in all honesty, didn’t you wonder about his work? We sometimes feel compelled to support something that seems important to support but inside we may have some misgivings, some quiet ambivalence or questions, and perhaps this was one of those instances for you. It was for me. So listen to this story. It helped me learn about George Tiller, what he does, perhaps why he does it. A woman became pregnant after much difficulty, after much fertility counseling and intervention. Her pregnancy was without incident, happily so. The baby seemed fine, she had no difficulty, things were proceeding completely normally. And then, in the 25th week, she slipped on some stairs and fell. Not badly, nothing dramatic, but she was advised by her doctor to come in to be sure her baby was all right, that nothing had happened, and so she did. She said, looking back, that the fall felt like a kind of divine intervention, because when she went in to make sure the baby was all right it was discovered the baby was not all right. Not because of the fall, but because it had some serious medical problems that had been missed in the previous routine examinations, somehow they simply hadn’t shown up. It was something in the baby’s heart, a genetic condition that appeared by chance, neither the mother nor father had it in their background. The woman was told that this problem was so severe that the baby would not survive, certainly not survive once it was born, and with a strong possibility that it would not even survive until she came to full term. She was faced with the prospect of continuing her pregnancy and either giving birth to a baby that was still born, or would likely not live long after birth. The doctors said there was a very small, virtually miniscule chance of correcting the problem through intrauterine surgery, but this would be immensely costly, not easy, and with a very small chance of success. Very small, virtually no chance of success. “I felt it would be wrong to use money that could or should go to help babies or children that had a real chance of improvement, not for something that almost certainly wouldn’t work, so I didn’t feel I wanted to pursue that,” the mother told me. This was a heartbreaking choice. This baby had been conceived with such difficulty, it was the literal embodiment of so much hope, and now that hope seemed gone. The parents decided not to pursue extraordinary medical intervention, not to pull out all the high tech medical stops, but to accept what seemed true, that this child she had been carrying with so much gratitude and love would not live, and so rather than wait until it died in her womb or died shortly after birth she made the decision to end her pregnancy. They were helped in this decision by talking with their priest, who spoke about God’s desire for us to have abundant and fruitful lives, which did not seem possible for their child, at least as far as the doctors were telling them. They made this decision also knowing that they might not be able to have any more children, that this pregnancy could be the mother’s only pregnancy. “People think that women use late term abortions as a form of birth control,” she told me, “irresponsible decisions made lightly, when they suddenly decide they don’t want to be parents.” She was crying when she said this. “This was not a decision that was easy for me.” Of course not. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for her to decide this, I only felt how deeply she agonized, but how it felt faithful in the midst of all this pain and loss. There are not many places that do abortions after the 21st week, at the end of the second trimester. According to the report in the Boston Globe George Tiller’s facility is one of three places in America that will do this, but according to the mother, George Tiller’s facility in Wichita was the only place in America that would do this when she was looking for help. Whatever the case, this woman went to Wichita, but only after sending her medical records and having serious consultations with the staff about what the medical issues were and why she was choosing to have an abortion. They had a rigorous screening process, they don’t just accept whoever shows up. At George Tiller’s facility in Wichita she experienced immense support and compassion. She said she was treated with the utmost respect, given care and attention. She said George Tiller spent time with her, helped her far beyond the medical procedure he was able to do. “My son was baptized,” she told me. Tearfully. George Tiller has been characterized as a monster, a murderer by some. His actions do not seem monstrous to me, and certainly the family he helped whose story I heard and just shared did not experience him in this way. The gospel lesson today, from John, contains the very familiar verse, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, . . .” Sadly, it is not unusual for people to imagine that God’s love extends primarily or exclusively to people who think as they do, who share similar values and beliefs. Thereis often not room in this equation for the complexities of life, like babies with undetected genetic abnormalities in their hearts who may not live to be born, or if that should happen, not live very long thereafter. In the woman’s st ory I heard, clearly, God’s mercy for her in the midst of a heartbreaking situation. Her baby was baptized. In the face of this deep, sad, loss, she was able to affirm her connection with God, and God’s connection with her, her husband and their child. The mystery of their loss remains, but there was nothing mysterious about her experience of God’s love, which came to her through the help of many people, friends, family, clergy, and George Tiller. Amen.

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