Monday, June 22, 2009

The Church on the Other Side

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost: Mark 4:35-41

Let us go across to the other side.

As we have been reading along in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has been in Capernaum, on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee. It appears to have been his home base. Mark makes several references to his “home” being there.

Suddenly this morning Jesus wants to move on. “Let us go across to the other side.” His disciples probably would have raised their eyebrows. “The other side” was Gentile territory, the region of the Decapolis. It would have been highly unusual for the Jews who lived on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee to venture across to the western side.

This journey is the first sign in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus’ message is meant to be universal, not for Jews alone. Why else go there?

The going is rough, a storm is encountered and the boat is swamped. Even the fishermen among the disciples are frightened. Jesus is non-plussed. The disciples are beside themselves.

Do you not care that we are perishing?

Then comes the awesome moment when Jesus shouts, “Peace! Be still!” and nature obeys him.

When they arrive at the other side it is the territory of the Gerasenes. There were tombs near where they landed and “immediately,” Mark says, they are accosted by a man who is stark raving mad, who lived among the tombs, unable to be restrained.

Jesus orders the unclean spirit to come out of the man in the same way he ordered the sea to be still. The demon knows who Jesus is, calls him “Son of the Most High God.” “What is your name?” Jesus asks. “My name is Legion; for we are many,” comes the reply.

Legion begs to be cast into a nearby herd of swine. (You know for certain you are in Gentile territory here if there is a herd of swine). Jesus does just that and the herd rushes into the sea and is drowned. The townspeople are terrified by all this and beg Jesus to go away.

Meanwhile the tormented man is now in his right mind. He begs to go with Jesus, but Jesus sends him on his way to tell others of his good fortune and we are told that is what he does, much to the amazement of all.

Jesus then returned back across the sea to Capernaum.

This story is deep with symbolism and meanings. Among these, I think, they are a metaphor for the Church’s calling. We are called to “cross to the other side” into unfamiliar territory. We are, in fact, called to be “the Church on the other side.”

As the story tells us, this is not an easy calling. The storms along the way are mighty and hostile forces may greet us once we come ashore. We, too, may be asked to leave as if we don’t belong there.

I think this is an especially apt metaphor for where the Episcopal Church, including this parish, finds itself these days. We have become “the Church on the other side,” much to the horror of some of our own people, not to mention other Christians.

“The other side” these days means inclusive of gay and lesbian people. But we have been here before. We have crossed to the other side before and met with different players.

We crossed to the other side when we ordained an African American man named Absalom Jones, the first denomination in the still new United States to do so. We then lost our nerve and didn’t let him or his people vote in Convention for many years, but the side had been crossed and there was no turning back.

We crossed to the other side again later in the nineteenth century when we ordained a deaf man as a priest, Henry Winter Syle. For many it was an outrageous act to ordain someone who was “imperfect” of body. Again, we were the first denomination to do this.

And we crossed to the other side in the 20th century when we began to ordain women, although it cannot be said that we were anywhere near the first to do that among our Christian brothers and sisters. But we were first in the Anglican Communion, and then pushed further to the other side in ordaining the first woman to be a Bishop, Barbara Harris.

A lot of our own people chose not to cross this other side with us. The Church lost hundreds of thousands of people over women’s ordination and the concurrent change in The Book of Common Prayer.

Now we have gone again and crossed to the other side. This Diocese was a pioneer in the inclusion of lesbian and gay people in the 1970’s and 1980’s, although it has only been recently that a significant number of gay and lesbian clergy have served in the Diocese. And, of course, we all know of the ordination of Gene Robinson as a Bishop, which rocked the Anglican world in such a way that we will never be the same.

This being the Church on the other side is a part of our heritage. It is tradition with us, costly though it has been. And there is still more ways to go. What is the next “other side?” I hope and pray it is the other side of those among us who are poor. That will shake this upper and middle class church to its very foundations.

I know some of you are sick and tired of the Church talking about sexuality. Believe me, no more sick and tired than I am. But this is among our callings in these days. If some want to identify and dismiss us as “the gay church,” then so be it. There are worse things that we could be called. For our part we should keep on doing the things that we are doing, fighting for equality for lesbian and gay people, yes, but also serving those who live in poverty and raising up children to be good people, with a great ability to tolerate and celebrate difference as a gift from God.

I also know some of you have to talk about this with friends and acquaintances, even members of your own families. How can you have him as your priest? Isn’t it embarrassing to be seen as “the gay church?”

I suggest you tell them that even Jesus crossed to the other side to include the un-includable. And we believe we are called to be the Church on the other side, doing the same thing in our own day. It makes for a messy life, but it makes us depend on Jesus all the more, because only he can say to us “Peace! Be still!” and we know some measure of calm.

As for me I’m proud to be a member of the Church on the other side and I hope we will continue to cross that sea again and again until all of God’s children are included among the followers of Jesus. That will be a great day, the day of what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community.” Let us keep on inviting others to cross over with us, so we can all sing as Martin wanted us to sing, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last!” That’s the song they sing on the other side.