Year C, Epiphany 2 January 17, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For Zion’s sake, I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest.”
Good morning everyone. I just really want to thank everyone who has taken part in Shelter Week this week. It has been a lovely time of ministry together, and in it we grow as members of the body of Christ, each with our own gifts, spiritual and otherwise, while we provide stabilizing, life giving shelter to neighbors of ours. The whole church has been represented in this ministry, and some neighbors whose first experience of Resurrection has been service downstairs. That’s exciting. Some come for one shift, because that is what they can do, while others like Jane, Ken, Ed, Doug, Mike, Debbie, Jerry, Diane, Carole and Frank the champion dish washer, have been here throughout the week, and Marsha, Windy, Nick and Tina holding it all together.… it has been wonderful. Thank you. Starting tomorrow our friends over at Unity of the Valley will take on the heavy lifting as we enter into a second week. Thank you all for your generosity with your time, with all of the food you have brought, and in sharing this space with those in need. It is some radical hospitality being shown down in our basement, some deep, Christian generosity.
That radical hospitality and sacramental generosity is really at the center of this church. The mission of the church, with the small “c” here at Resurrection and with the big “C” as in the whole church, or at least the Episcopal Church, is to “restore all people to unity with God and with each other in Christ. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace and love.” It is written right on our bulletins. It is in the Prayer Book. It is why we do what we do. It is why we welcome all sorts of people into our less and less little church here in South Eugene. It is fabulous… then we hear of the word coming out of Canterbury this week and it makes one pause for a moment.
You’ve heard about the commotion at Canterbury, right? The Primates of the Anglican Communion, the heads of the churches that make up the communion, just met and handed down a suspension of sorts to the Episcopal Church over the changes we made to our Canon Law and Prayer Book to hold same-sex marriage in the same esteem as we do opposite-sex marriage. Yes, we are in the midst of a very unfortunate, a frustrating and troublesome moment in the life of the Church with a big “C”. And us, the Episcopal Church and soon to follow the Church of Canada face losing our place at the table with the world wide Anglican Communion because we are standing, like Jesus Christ, with those whom others reject.
This all started in earnest back in 2003 when Gene Robinson was consecrated Bishop of New Hampshire. He was the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. (The key word is openly… we’ve had gay bishops since we’ve had bishops, in Bishop Gene, his personal courage and integrity intersected with an opening in time and place and he was able to be honest in a way that none of his predecessors or contemporaries had been able to, including the bishop who ordained me.) It was a good day for the church, Gene’s consecration, even though he had to wear a bullet proof vest under his vestments, and it was an occasion that caused real consternation in certain parts of the church here and in other provinces of the communion. There was a small schism here, a few dozen churches across the country, including one in this Diocese, left, and affiliated with a group that is related to provinces in Sub-Saharan Africa, most notably Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. They call themselves the Anglican Church in North America. It was much ado about very little and it was sad that some abandoned their church because they didn’t agree with some of its policies, in particular policies that widened the embrace of the Church. But that is church, c’est la vie.
That public debate, though, the Episcopal Church’s backing of Bishop Robinson, and our broad unity in the face of a teensy schism was inspiring. Plenty of loyal Episcopalians still have trouble recognizing that God’s welcome is not constrained by cultural norms, but the church survived, survives, and is a testimony to the gift of remaining in relationship with people we do not always agree with, even on important matters. We all have brothers-in-law, right? You all don’t always agree with everything I say, right? And our unity, our staying the course in support of Bishop Robinson, then Bishop Shaw who came out, and Bishop Glasspool’s consecraton in LA (a double whammy, she is not only gay but she is a she Bishop, an innovation our mother Church of England is just now adopting), and all of it contributed to the long, slow campaign for the human rights of gay, lesbian, transgender, all sorts of folks in the minority for their gender or sexual identities. Gay marriage is now legal everywhere in this country. Not always possible, but legal. Jim Crow ended legally a long time ago but that does not mean all is hunky-dory in race relations, no?
But churches, all institutions, but churches in particular and often for good reason, move slowly. The Church has always been ballast in society. And that is good. We the people, the mob, we need cultural ballast, we need help in not flying off on the latest fancy and leaving tradition aside. That’s why the Mass is rooted in ancient forms, adapted to the current reality. That is good ballast. Too often, though, that ballast, the stabilizing function of institutions like the church can turn into a loadstone or an anchor tethering us to an archaic past. Keeping the Sabbath: ballast; prohibiting Christians from collecting usury, from collecting interest for the first thousand years of the church: ballast. Not ordaining women: loadstone. Not recognizing the full humanity of LGBTQ folks: loadstone. No mystery there, we’re talking about change (and change in institutions overwhelmingly led by the equivalent of older white men), and the church and all institutions react rather poorly to change. How many bishops does it take to change a lightbulb? A: Change?
But things do change. Change institutionally really only comes when the institution itself is changed. For us, Episcopalians, people of the books (the Bible and the Prayer Book) change means change there. Well, not in the Bible, though perhaps in how we read the Bible, but more importantly in the Prayer Book and in the governing documents of the church, the Canons. So over the past 13 years since Bishop Gene’s consecration, the legislative machine of the church began to churn. Eventually, bishops were given the option to exercise “pastoral generosity” and were allowed to permit their priests to bless same sex unions. (Our Bishop Michael was very generous in such matters from day one of his Episcopacy). But to actually permit same sex marriage rites nationally had a lot of legal implications for churches in places where it was not legal, so it took longer than it should have. Then DOMA fell. The Defense of Marriage Act, a hateful piece of legislation defining marriage in a single, traditional way, was declared unconstitutional. Not a miracle of the scale of the wedding in Cana, but pretty miraculous by the standards of this court.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, the Episcopal Church actually moved quite rapidly, culminating back in June at the triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church. General Convention is our primary governing body, sort of like diocesan convention, but for the whole church. The 2015 Convention ratified, made official, added to our doctrine, amended our Canon Law to recognize the sacramental validity and sanctity of same sex marriages, and adopted an approved Rite of Marriage for same sex weddings as an addendum to our Prayer Book. (It doesn’t get much more real than that for us Prayer Book people). This was a very good moment for our Church, that we communally, doctrinally recognize the God given love and commitment that can inspire and inhabit intimate relationships in ways that have not been traditionally accepted. It is really that simple, the church is recognizing that Love exists in yet another place that we had not recognized before and we are shining our light on it on behalf of God who never stopped shining that light. It took us way too long, and we have plenty of repenting to do for the harm done and still being done to LGBTQ folks in our churches here and abroad, but we are doing the right thing, like the prophet Isaiah promises, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake, I will not rest.” We did not, and we will not. Sadly, we are rather alone in this evolution, in this forward movement into the ever expanding Kingdom of God.
So here is what happened on Thursday. The gathered Primates of the church voted to exclude the Episcopal Church from representing the Anglican Communion in any ecumenical or interfaith bodies, and can not be elected or appointed to any internal standing committee and may not take part in “decision making on any issue pertaining to doctrine or polity” for a period of three years. And this was all due to our change in our Canon regarding the definition of marriage that they declared to represent “a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching of the majority of our Provinces in the Communion.”
There are 38 autonomous Provinces that make up the Anglican Communion. We are a stand alone church, we don’t answer to the Archbishop of Canterbury in any kind of policy way, but we are part of a world wide group of churches descended from the Church of England and we associate by remaining “in communion” in covenantal relationship with each other through the See of Canterbury. So really, the practical effect of all of this, even to being excluded from the Communion permanently, is basically nil. We don’t have to change our letter head. Episcopal Relief and Development will still work in Uganda. Our Bishops might not get as many invitations to meetings overseas. Some partner church relationships might be affected, but no real practical effects will be felt here in the US; but there is a rift, there is a rent in our religious fabric and that is sad. It is sad that fear and ignorance and the need for conformity by some leaders of the church is more important than maintaining Christian relationship across difference let alone questioning their own practices and cultures that try to exclude some from God’s love.
The bishops that sanctioned our church claim that we have made “a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching of the majority of our Provinces in the Communion.” To me, the fundamental faith and teaching of the church is (or darn well should be) is the truth of the eternal and universal love of God for every living being and the ministry of Jesus Christ who welcomed the least of these, the most marginalized not only to His table, but to the head of His table. You look at any power conflict where those with much are opposed by those with less, and Jesus is on the losing side, the side with less. Always, like with absolute certainty, Jesus is on the side of the gay community in Uganda that faces capital punishment for acting on their basic human nature. That’s where Jesus is, that is where we need to be, like we are with the poor and homeless here in Eugene, the most vulnerable in our society.
At the same time, our world is becoming more polarized, more extreme all the time. Republicans and Democrats can’t even share space let alone govern our nation together. “My preferences” and history on my computer make hearing opinions I don’t share hard to find, and I am constantly fed more of what I want to, what I prefer to hear, maybe less of what I need to hear. We, the Episcopal Church, are on the right side of this moment. We are on the side of expanding our consciousness about how vast and undiscriminating God’s love actually is, and we are molding our imperfect institutions to resemble that consciousness. We need to be proud of our Church’s stand on this, and be resolved to always, always come down on the side of the ones most excluded, most marginalized, most vulnerable just as Jesus Christ did. And at the same time we need to mourn the fact that our brother Christians (no women in the Primates club since our own Bishop Katherine finished her term), we need to mourn that some in our church will exclude us for including others too generously, too radically, and that differences right now risk compromising important relationships far into the future. “The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings you glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.” AMEN