Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Unnatural Household of God

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the Day of Pentecost: Numbers 11:24-30; Acts 2:1-21; John 7:37-39

I don't know how much you have ever thought about the words that you say at the end of a baptism, when you receive a newly baptized person into the community of faith.

We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.

These words say nothing directly about the Holy Spirit, whose gift to the first disciples and to us we celebrate today, but the Holy Spirit's fingerprints are all over them. It is the Holy Spirit that makes those words possible.

We receive you into the household of God. We sometimes call the Church "the family of God," and that's OK, but this term "household of God" is really better. It is what the Prayer Book calls the Church and it is a more biblical term than "family." It is also more inclusive in its content. A "household" includes everybody who lives in or is connected to a house, not just those who are legally related or blood relation.

In biblical Greek, a household is oikos, the word we get “economics” from. An oikos is group of people who have common economic interests.

What connects members of the household of God is not blood or law, or even economics, but the Holy Spirit, who lives in each member, not by their own doing, but as a gift from God. It is, as well, the only thing that connects them all.

I would propose to you that this community, this household the Spirit creates, is, in the eyes of much of the world, a most unnatural household. It is not like any other kind of community or household that human beings make.

Human beings, you and I, naturally make communities based on affinities—things we have in common. That's true of couples or groups of friends or clubs. We are most comfortable and find it most interesting to spend time and build our most important relationships with people who are like us. It is only natural that we do so.

We also depend upon having common interests and goals and attitudes for falling in love with someone. In fact, we all know that marriages or partnered relationships tend not to last if the two people in them stop having common interests and goals.

All of that is OK and perfectly natural. But it is not the kind of community the Holy Spirit creates. It is not the kind of community the Church is. The Church, by human standards, is a very unnatural community.

As our former presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, liked to say, “Baptism catches us up into solidarities not of our own choosing.” The Holy Spirit puts us in relationships with people to whom we would not naturally be drawn. It's true in this room.

The Holy Spirit creates a community—the household of God—made up of people who are very different from one another, who have all kinds of natural boundaries between one another, who sometimes cannot understand one another, who sometimes don't even like one another very well.

This is a mighty and powerful thing the Spirit does. She creates love where we human beings cannot create it, cannot naturally feel it. This love not of our own making is that "stream of living water flowing out of the heart of the believer" of which the Gospel reading from John speaks this morning. It is love that is a gift of the Spirit not something which on our own we could create.

Let me give you two examples from my experience of the Spirit's gift of love that binds us together in this unnatural household we call the Church.

The first comes from twenty years ago, when a woman named Elizabeth Carl was ordained in the Diocese of Washington by Bishop Ronald Haines. Elizabeth was a lesbian living in a partnered relationship with another woman. That ordination and others like it may in itself be an example of the “unnatural household” God calls us into and the Holy Spirit enables.

But my example comes from one of the people who came to protest that ordination. The ordination had become quite public (more so than usual). So when it came time in the liturgy for the Bishop to ask if there was anyone who knew of any reason Elizabeth should not be ordained (A question which is always asked, just like at a wedding), some people got up to speak.

One of them was a priest of the Diocese, Canon Edward West, then the Rector of Calvary Church, DC, a well-known and well-loved man, one of the senior priests of the Diocese. He gave his clear reasons why he thought Elizabeth should not be ordained and asked the Bishop not to proceed.

Then a group of others spoke and also said so. Their tone was a angrier than Canon West's had been. When they were finished, Bishop Haines thanked them but said he had no reason not to proceed. From where I was sitting with other clergy, I could tell that the group that had spoken left the Church.

We went on with the liturgy. When the moment came for the ordination itself, the priests present gathered around Elizabeth and the Bishop to join in laying hands on her. Lo and behold, I noticed there was Canon West joining in. I was surprised, even stunned.

At the end of the liturgy a friend and I went up to Canon West and asked him why he did what he did—protest, but then join in the laying on of hands.

He said, “The Bishop was going to ordain her for the Church and I am a part of the Church. And the priests of the Church were going to join with him and I am a priest of the Church. And now she is one too. And I am one with her.”

That, my friends, is the effect of the Holy Spirit creating an unnatural household, whose only affinity is the Spirit itself, expressing the love of God through the members of the household, different though they may be.

Another example of this effect was when a deacon named Cruz Rodriguez was visiting my last parish from our companion diocese in Honduras. It seemed clear to me that she should participate in the liturgy as a deacon of the Church. I must say I had some anxieties about that, and they only increased as the time for it got nearer, right up until the liturgy began. We did not speak a common language. I know about three words of Spanish, and she knew not much more English. I began the liturgy thinking it was going to be a disaster.

It was fine. It was even wonderful. Once the liturgy began we did speak a common language, the sacramental and ritual language of the Church, the language passed on to both of us from our ancestors.

It was an incredible experience of the effect of the Holy Spirit in creating a community, an unnatural household of faith and love not of our own making.

Submitting to this household and the “solidarities it catches us up into not of our own choosing” can be hard work sometimes. It does often take an act of submission, or obedience, on our part, especially when the solidarity is with someone we do not naturally understand or like or even approve of. Our natural inclination in those cases is like that of Joshua in the Old Testament reading this morning. "Stop them! This can't be right!"

But as Joshua learned, God chooses who God chooses, and the Holy Spirit binds us to others without asking our permission first and then even has the audacity to insist that we love them even if we don’t want to.

The Holy Spirit creates the household of God, an unnatural community.

Pentecost is a day for us to renew our pledge, our submission, to the Holy Spirit's way of making community, this unnatural community we call the Household of God and the Church. The Spirit given us in Baptism and continually offering herself to transform us in the Eucharist calls us to be together in a way not found elsewhere in this world. And to tell others the Good News that this is possible. We can live with one another, all of us.

Let us now receive Shawnna and James into the household of God.

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