Exodus 16:24, 915; Psalm 78; Ephesians 4:1725; John 6:2435
This Sunday falls at the midpoint of the triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church, meeting in Minneapolis and called “Engaging God’s Mission.” These are wonderful times in the history of the Church. The need to know God and to know the mind of Christ presses in around us as the desert emptiness pressed in around the people of Israel wandering through the wilderness of Sinai. We cannot now take steps forward in the confidence that we are right any more than they could as they wandered away from Egypt. So we are reduced to telling each other the truth, letting each other see our cowardice and our hope, demanding impossible rescues, receiving unanticipated food, and in it all, hoping that we will find ourselves faithful to the vision of a promised land. So it is additionally wondrous that the Convention states that it has gathered to “to receive, repent, reconcile, and restore”—that is what it means to “engage God’s mission.”
Of course, what the media has picked up, licking its lips for tasty morsels, is the process for consent to the consecration of Gene Robinson, the first openly Gay man to be elected a diocesan bishop. It is part of the shameful derangement of our age that this seems the most significant item on the agenda there. Archbishop Ndungane of Capetown, speaking in a forum at the Convention, shook his head, half in despair, half in derision. “I can shout it from the rooftops, Anglicans are obsessed with sexuality, when there are many important issues in the world, issues about life and death. I sometimes feel that this is an agenda that seeks to distract us.” I agree. Our inability to grasp the depth of God’s welcoming love leaves us with no message to proclaim, nothing to offer that anyone wants. In this, we do not have the mind of Christ, who welcomed anyone and everyone as he went about healing and teaching and making God’s love present among us.
So what do Episcopalians have to receive? I say God’s gift to us of diversity, not only as sexual beings, but as the full exuberance and complexity of the human condition, the deep rich ecology of cultures and races. What do we have to repent? I am not alone in saying we have not yet repented the pervasive and persistent sin of racism and economic injustice. Where do we need reconciliation? I believe we need it in the breadth and embrace of the Anglican Communion. What do we need to restore? We must restore the freshness and primacy of our baptism.
The early Jewish theologians used the story of the desert wanderings of the people of Israel to reflect on the relationship between God and humanity. Security lulls us. We are more aware of God when we become conscious of the fragility of our circumstances. It is one of the fundamental paradoxes of life. When, in our safety and complacency, we consider God optional, we sense God as absent. When we truly need God as we hang over the abyss, we become amazed by the pervasive presence that sustains us.
The broad movement of the Church has been towards greater inclusion and greater freedom. We hardly need recall the brutal racist divisions and the patronizing contempt towards the participation of women in the Church. And yet today, the descendants of slaves and the daughters of Eve are bishops. It is no surprise that we now ask if a Gay man can be a elected to that office. Nor is it surprising that the embrace of God truly is greater than our grasp, and that the intention of God to restore all things means this next step. How can anyone categorically be left out? This is not the corruption of the Church by culture, but the deepening engagement of the Church in God’s own mission of reconciliation. We are called to receive all on behalf of Christ and we must not turn a welcome into discrimination.
But we also must repent. Racism is the Church’s “most important unfinished business,” as Randy Dales said. Many dioceses already require anti-racism training of those seeking election or ordination. And yet, in the words of Betty Hart, “an anti-racism course is not a vaccination. It is an ongoing conversation in our lives.”
These voices were echoed by African guests, who pointed out that across the Anglican Communion, endemic disease, poverty, and hunger have far more impact than our fixation on sex. The repentance we are called to includes setting aside our shrill petulant insistence on sexuality as the test case for the discernment of true believers and remembering the corporal works of mercy: have we fed the hungry, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, welcomed the stranger? At the Forum on Global Reconciliation, Jeffrey Sachs pointed out that in the day that had just ended in Africa, 7000 children died of malaria and another 7000 of AIDS. That horror is increased when we realize that our country has all the resources necessary to end that crisis, but we give one tenth of one percent of our budget. As Archbishop Ndugagne said, “What we lack today in our world of controversial issues is listening with empathy and with one’s heart.” That listening needs to stretch beyond hearing the two sides of a feverish issue to paying attention to those who question whether or not that issue is the most vital one and who bring matters of life and death to the conversation. We are called to repentance.
This work of repentance enables us then to become reconciled, not only with those close to us, but across the Anglican Communion. Many Anglicans around the world are watching this convention with anxiety; it would be easy for the deputies and bishops to dismiss with impatience any sense of mutual accountability, as if that acknowledgement were already a muffling and a hobbling. And yet, in his opening address, the Presiding Bishop said, “I see more and more that communion is not a human construction, but a gift from God which involves not only our relationships to one another on earth, but our being drawn by the Holy Spirit into the eternal life of communion which belongs to the Holy Trinity. We are discovering in fits and starts what it means to live in communion, and our communion is always impaired, because of our limited understanding of God’s ways and because of our human sinfulness. However, we have been baptized into one Body and maintaining communion is therefore a sacred obligation. … I say this knowing very well indeed that living in communion is not always easy and requires of us all a deep desire to understand the different ways in which we seek to be faithful to the Gospel. Declarations of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of communion may assuage our own fears, or our angers, but they do not reflect the Gospel. They do not show our broken and needy world that at the heart of the Gospel there is a reconciling love that seeks to embrace our passionately held opinions and transcend them all.”
So baptism—being “baptized into one Body”—is finally the heart of our establishment in Christ, our immersion, one and all, in Christ’s Body. I said at the beginning of this sermon that I thought we must restore the freshness and primacy of our baptism. Perhaps that is what we most need: a restoration of that sense of rising freshly rinsed by God and facing each other, quite wet and quite naked, quite empowered and quite vulnerable, but always equal in each other’s eyes, siblings received from the same womb, with no advantage one over the other. The people of Israel, their sandals still damp with sea-bed sand, must have shuddered at the new thing they were. When they forgot their harrowing escape from Pharaoh, they began to squabble about food. What needed to be restored was not their comfort in Egypt, but the surprise and delight of that dawn on the shore of the Red Sea where they felt the raw green edge of God’s grace. So it is for us.
Of all the things facing this Convention, perhaps the most important theologically is the use of the Baptismal Covenant to revise the Canons for Ministry. All of us are created ministers of the Gospel by our baptism. The revisions to the Canons being proposed acknowledge the “full and equal dignity” of the various callings in the Church and the need for those ministries to be discerned and formed deliberately. The revisions add that, as baptism is open to all, so these ministries are.
Remember the other great heavenly feeding story. Peter, hiding from persecution, praying alone on a roof, saw a sheet full of unclean animals lowered in front of him, and heard a voice command him to eat. With his customary obtuse audacity, he refused, recalling the Law’s clear prohibitions and saying, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” In fairness to him, this might have been a temptation, so caution was wise. But think also how absurd to claim to know better than God what is worthy and what is not, and how blasphemous to use God’s own Law to block God’s own action. This is the theological maneuver Jesus condemned consistently when he met it in his own day. The voice from heaven said to Peter, “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This is where the Church always finds itself—and again finds itself in this Convention—struggling to discern what God is doing, so that she can receive it and repent and become reconciled and restored, and give thanks.
The blessing of same-sex unions is not the endorsement of a lifestyle, but a sign of the end of discernment. It is a recognition that homosexual persons are exactly as sinful as heterosexual people and precisely as potentially virtuous. Just as one can be guilty of lust and depravity, so can the other; just as one can be a sign of God’s love and faithful commitment, so can the other. All have been brought equally through the Red Sea of baptism into the wilderness where nothing stands between us and God.
As there is no discrimination in who can receive baptism, nor any barrier to its grace, so there is no discrimination in the ministries baptism empowers. The revisions of the Canons underscore this. We come full circle: receiving the gifts for ministry bestowed on every baptized Christian, repenting the ways we cause each other to stumble, enables reconciliation also around the call of an openly Gay man to be the bishop of a diocese.
The Convention is not over. Please keep the deputies and the bishops in your prayers. Perhaps the prayer that the Presiding Bishop offered the Convention is the one to offer you. This is the prayer of Philaret, a Russian bishop of Moscow in the 19th Century: “Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely on your holy will. In every hour of the day, reveal your will to me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that your will governs everything. In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by you. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will. Teach me to pray. Pray yourself in me.”
May his words become ours, and may we receive God’s unimaginable bounty, repent our trivial and callous willfulness, become reconciled to all, and find ourselves restored as the freshness of God’s new creation, so that our lives may engage God’s mission of drawing all into the wonder of God’s presence until the day we enter God’s glory, to praise the Trinity forever.