Sermon for Lent 1C The Rev. Michael W. Hopkins
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 The Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene
Romans 10:8b-13 February 25, 2007
Let me say first of all that I did not want to preach about the Anglican Communion and homosexuality this Sunday. As you will see in the newsletter that arrives this week, my intention this Lent is that we do some serious naming of the realities in the streets around us, lamenting those realities, and further prepare ourselves spiritually for participating in God’s work of reconciliation and transformation.
I still intend for us to do that the rest of this season. But today I have to say something about what is going on in our church.
Not all of you are aware of what I am talking about, so let me try to bring you up to speed quickly.
The archbishops and presiding bishops of the 38 member provinces (who are referred to as “primates”) had their annual meeting, concluding this past Monday. Our new presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, was present for the first time. There had been some uncertainty about how she would be received. The good news was that she was seated, the first woman ever in that body. She was even elected to their Standing Committee by the other primates from North and South America.
Trouble did surface mid-way through the meeting when seven of the primates absented themselves from Holy Communion, issuing a statement that they could not in good conscience receive Communion with her.
Then came the final communication from the meeting. It stated explicitly that the Episcopal Church has departed from “the standard of teaching on human sexuality” as stated by the Lambeth Conference in 1998 and that “the episcopal ministry of a person living in a same-sex relationship is not acceptable to the majority of the Communion.” It then declared that the Episcopal Church is in a “broken relationship” with the rest of the Communion, and sets out several things that must be done “for there to be healing in the life of the Communion.”
As I read the document, these are the three things that are required of us:
Accept a Pastoral Council to act on behalf of the Primates in their relationship with the Episcopal Church. Our presiding bishop would appoint two of five members. This Council would choose a “primatial vicar,” who would provide alternative leadership to those in the Episcopal Church who disagree with the actions of our General Convention and do not wish the oversight of their own bishop or our presiding bishop. This “primatial vicar” must come from among those Episcopal Church bishops who are compliant with the supposed standard of teaching on human sexuality.
Our bishops are required to “make an unequivocal common covenant” that they will not “authorize any rite of blessing for same-sex unions” nor vote in favor of such a rite at General Convention.
Our bishops are also required to declare that they will not consent to the election as a bishop of a person living in a same-sex relationship. The bishops are given a deadline of September 30 to meet these two requirements.
If we do not satisfy these requirements than “the relationship between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion remains damaged at best, and this has consequences for the full participation of the [Episcopal] Church in the life of the Communion.” Presumably this means that our bishops will not be invited to the next Lambeth Conference (in 2008) and we will be suspended from participation in all other international Anglican bodies.
All of you know that it is impossible for me to be objective or dispassionate about all of this. I am personally affected by it, as is Mary Ann, and, if for no other reason than the nature of our relationship, so are we, together, as a parish.
Our life together, however, is not directly, immediately threatened. The Primates are not going after openly gay or lesbian priests (yet), and there is no “authorization” of same-sex blessings in this diocese even though many parishes like ours offer that pastoral response with our bishop’s knowledge. Our bishop has assured me that situation is not going to change. Our bishop, in fact, remains strongly supportive. For those of you who have not seen it, copies of his public response to all this are in the back of the church.
In a letter to the clergy of the diocese who are gay or lesbian, he spoke even more strongly.
Please know that I will not abandon you nor will I sit silently while some try to wrest our openness away from us. I can tell you, “This is a ditch I am willing to die in.” You all are doing such excellent ministry, and thankfully, those who choose to look can see it. I am grateful to you, and I can only imagine God is too.
So there is no direct, immediate threat, except on an emotional, and therefore spiritual, level and, of course, that should not be discounted.
I do want you to know, however, that I am not able to be objective about these requests as much because of my commitment to Anglicanism as I understand it as because I am a gay man. I believe these proposals and the way at which they have been arrived are a betrayal of our heritage and signal a massive shift in our way of being church together. What I hope our bishops, in particular, understand, is that it is precisely our way of being church together that has made us a haven for so many. We are a kind of “church of last resort” because of our increasing openness. At least for us in this country, I believe we will be committing evangelical suicide if we completely capitulate to these demands.
As for our presiding bishop, I can tell you I am terribly disappointed in her, but I do not blame her for this and I still believe her leadership bears much promise. I would not have wanted to have been in her shoes in Tanzania, and I believe she was able to keep things from being even worse. In my response to her actions, I must both find a way to let her know that Irespect and support her, but I must also speak truth to power.
It is the prospect of doing just that—speaking truth to power—that causes me to reflect on today’s Gospel and perhaps salvage this sermon time for some spiritual benefit for us.
That is what Jesus is doing in the Gospel this morning, he is speaking truth to power (and, please, do not hear that I am comparing the presiding bishop to the devil!). In doing so, he is laying out a personal agenda which says no to the power of wealth and domination—both political and spiritual domination—itself. He is saying “no” to the achievement of his vision by means of control.
This pleases God. If this desert experience was a test for Jesus than he passes with flying colors, and then when he emerges from it and joins the masses of ordinary folk attracted to the river Jordan by the message of his cousin John, God’s response is, “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.”
I wrestle with Jesus’ embrace of vulnerability as a way of life, the way, as we call it, of the cross. In the current circumstances I wrestle with whether or not I (and we) are being called to be vulnerable and whether that might mean submitting to what is being asked of us. On the other hand, I do not see Jesus in this story submitting to power, but calling it out, naming it for what it is and refusing to participate in it, though not in a way in which he seeks his own domination of it.
The way of the cross, the way of vulnerability, at this point in the life of the Episcopal Church may very well be to say “no” to participation in a scheme of domination masquerading as healing. It may be to live in the wilderness of separation from our brothers and sisters for a time, although, I assume still doing everything we can to do ministry with them for the sake of the most vulnerable of the world.
If there is a separation I trust it will be in no sense a “thumbing our superior noses” at the rest of the world, nor certainly saying “we have no need of you.” If there is a separation, I pray that it is temporary, and for the sake of all of us being in a place where we can actually better speak out truth and listen to one another’s truth. This is the way of vulnerability.
It is this way of vulnerability, this way of the cross, that Lent confronts us with each year. It is the way to our freedom, although we have a great deal of trouble believing it. Truth to tell we really do prefer the god that the devil offers Jesus, the God of domination and control, the God who saves by manipulation and miracle. We get, instead, the God of the cross, who saves by dying and teaches us the way of disarming love and costly truth telling.
This is not the way being offered to us by the Primates of the Anglican Communion. It is not the way we will heal our Church. It is not the way we will transform our streets or our own lives. The only way for all those things to happen is to tell the truth, cost what it may, and trust in the God who leads his beloved children through the desert back to the water of life.