Lighthouses of Hope in Perilous Seas
Independence Day Sermon -- All Saints Church, Pasadena
The Reverend J. Edwin Bacon, Jr. -- Sunday, July 02, 2006
At All Saints Church, the Sunday closest to July the 4th is distinguished bybeing the Sunday on which we celebrate the American dream in its mostradical expression of liberty and justice for all and, using Jesus'revelation of God and God's ways, we look at the points where that Americanever has been but actually is called by God to be. We look at how we citizens are called to make that America happen, resourced by the wisdom, perseverance, and power of God.
This year, because of recent events in the church, I feel compelled today to address not the American dream but the dream of the Church and where we havef ailed that dream.
When my wife and I were considering becoming members of the Episcopal Church, the divisive debate going on within the Anglican communion was the ordination of women. We waited to be confirmed to see what the church would do on an institutional level about the full inclusion of women. Would the legislative arm of the Episcopal church, called General Convention, declarethat the ordination of women was permissible? In 1976, the General Convention indeed did vote in the affirmative on that matter. This church had drawn us into its embrace and ministry by not only saying that Jesus'acceptance of people as they are was its mode of operation but by the way itpracticed open communion - that all were welcome to the table - showed usthat this church was committed to celebrating the meal of God the way Jesuscelebrated the meal of God - by calling all to it, particularly those whowere the targeted and marginalized of society.
All of us have a deep need to know that we are unconditionally embraced by God's undying love. Allhuman beings need to know that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. Here was a church that walked the talk. Our decision to find a church that proclaimed the dignity of every humanbeing was sharpened by the fact that my wife and I were raised in a church where the Bible was often used as a weapon of mass discrimination.
The pastor of the largest church in my earlier denomination had used the Bible to support his view that God was a "segregationist God." And certainly the Bible had been used not only to preach that African-Americans were inferior but it was also used to perpetuate relegating women to second-class citizens.
We had read the Bible and knew that its overall message is one ofinclusion and peace and liberty and justice for all. After we were confirmed now almost 30 years ago, we began an enriching, challenging, stretching, and transforming journey as Episcopalians. It hasbeen a journey where I have become more committed to God and Jesus everyday, where I have learned more about Scripture being an instrument of liberation and inspiration despite its being used as a tool of discrimination, injustice, and violence by some. It is a church in which I have come to know and be tutored by great examples of Christianity, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It is a church where I could find my ownway of trying to be a minister of truth, a minister of mysticism and prayer, a minister believing in the communication between religion, art, science,and other world religions, a minister of peace, liberty, inclusion, andjustice for all.
It is a church where I have lived to celebrate the ordination of not only the first women as priests, but the first woman as bishop, Barbara Harris, the first openly gay man as bishop, Gene Robinson, and come this November 4, the first woman as primate in the history of Christianity, Katharine Jefferts Schori. It is where I have acknowledged that same gender affection and orientation is a gift from God to be celebrated not a malady to be cured and where I have presided at the blessing of gay and lesbian men and women who want to bring the love of their lives to the altar of God for divine blessing.
It has been a thrilling journey for which I am deeply grateful. That wonderful journey received a serious blow two weeks ago at the 2006 General Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Religious authorities from the Anglican Communion had written a report called the Windsor Report callingfor the Episcopal Church in the U.S. to repent for ordaining Gene Robinson prior to there being global consensus on such actions, asking for a moratorium on such behavior in the future in order for there to be acontinued Anglican "conversation".
Two weeks ago the House of Deputies twice refused to pass any legislation that would agree to a moratorium. At the last minute of General Convention, the Presiding Bishop called for a joint meeting of the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops and put forth yet a third attempt, this time using the euphemisms, "restraint" against consenting to the election of bishops whose "amnner of life present a challenge to the wider church".
The Presiding Bishop-elect addressed the House of Deputies, signing on to this blatantly discriminatory resolution saying it was the best we could do at this point and that it was required in order to stay at the global Anglican table of conversation. I dare say that had the resolution referred to African-Americans or women instead of the euphemism for gays andlesbians, no one, including Bishop Jefferts Schori, would have thought that"this was the best we could do". Because of the desire of many to give Presiding Bishop-elect Jefferts Schori "something to take with her to global Anglican meetings", many deputies voted against their conscience and against their convictions and wrote into the annals of the church a resolution that discriminates against an entire classification of humanity - an act that is the opposite of the spirit and deed of Jesus' table where he drew all sorts and conditions of humanity to know and feel the healing, forgiving, affirming, and empowering love of God.
I disassociate myself from that resolution of discrimination that is antithetical to promoting the dignity of every human being. A major irony is that this renewed act of discrimination took place in the same General Convention which expressed the repentance of the Episcopal Church for its historical complicity in slavery. There is no doubt in mymind that a future General Convention will one day repent of this prejudicial action.
There are so many tragedies in this event. Like all acts of discrimination,prejudice, injustice, oppression, and violence - both physical and spiritualviolence (for to coerce another human being to take a stand against his orher conscience is an act of spiritual violence), it will take years torecover from placing "staying at the table" as a value of greater importancet han staying in solidarity with those who are targeted in life. It was anact of betrayal that I never thought I would see the church take.
It put theEpiscopal Church more in the role of Judas than of Jesus, using other people's lives as bargaining chips for institutional survival without ever consulting them. None of the leaders of Integrity or Claiming the Blessing were ever consulted. It is understandable if someone sacrifices their own life for what they consider a greater good. It is unacceptable human behavior, much less Christian behavior for someone to sacrifice someone else's life -especially in the case where no one consults with them.
Another tragedy is that an organization which exists to inspire its members and others to carry forward the prophetic ministry of Jesus, to use the words of Bishop Paul Marshall, "elevated institution over inspiration in theabsolute sense." Bishop Marshall wrote in his response to the Windsor Reportwhen it was first released, "in C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, there is situated in the pit of Hell a theological discussion group, and we meet a bishop about to deliver to it a paper on how Jesus might have been more effective and long-lived if he had learned to get along with authorities!Institution over inspiration." (Addresses and Pastoral Letters, Bishop PaulV. Marshall, "Institution over inspiration?" Initial reflections on theWindsor Report, October 19th, 2004)
Another tragedy is that very soon after this discriminatory act had become institutionalized, the leaders of the conservative movement within theEpiscopal Church and the Anglican Communion said that the American Episcopal Church simply had not been discriminatory enough.
Archbishop Akinola ofNigeria, who joins forces with the government of Nigeria to criminalize homosexuality and to further terrorize homosexual persons, made that clear last week. And Bishop Duncan of Pittsburg, who works to deny homosexual persons marriage equality in this country, petitioned the Archbishop of Canterbury, along with 5 other dioceses to remove them from the EpiscopalChurch in the U.S. and place them under the leadership of another archbishop in the Anglican Communion.
Soon after that, the Archbishop of Canterbury published a reflection the meaning of which is that if the Episcopal church continues to move in the direction of full inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in every role and office of leadership without consent from the entire global communion, that perhaps the best structure to adopt for the Communion is to have a membership classification without vote for those not compliant with the consensus. Finally, it was announced that a rector inVirginia had suddenly been elected a bishop of the province of Nigeria forthe purpose of providing oversight of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America.
These developments from the conservative wing of the Anglican Communion raise the issue of self-delusion over the value of preserving the table ofconversation when the conservatives are going to try to break away anyway.
I'm reminded of T-Bone Burnett's new song, Palestine, Texas, where he sings,"When you come out of this self-delusion/you're gonna need a soul transfusion."
Needless to say, this has presented many of us with a great challenge. But one of my core beliefs is that unless you are standing at Ground Zero whenthe bomb hits, what matters much more in life than the conditions of my life are the responses I make to those conditions.
So now it is time to speakabout the good news - the responses Jesus made to the perilous seas of his time.You and I have been given the greatest possible gift - the gift of the presence of God in our daily lives. God's ways have been revealed to us inthe life and ministry of Jesus, whose life shows us three very important life truths. No matter how perilous the seas become, these three lighthouses of hope and energy always shine brightly to empower us to weather whatever storms arise.
The first lighthouse of hope and truth is that God is love. Today's gospel lesson tells us how radical a difference the truth that "God is love" is to make in our lives. We are called to pray for and love our enemies. And the reason is that in God there are no polarities of love versus hate, friendsversus enemies, the just and the unjust, the good and the bad. All people are one in God's capacious heart of love, no matter how bad we behave. For God's love works to shine the sun on the good and the bad alike and to bring the rain on the just and the unjust. God loves everyone's being and in theface of our evil doing, always seeks us out to return us to God's love. So we are called to love as fully and as radically as God loves.
Second, God's creation is good and God is not separate from that creation but active in it to turn it back to the way of love when we forget that ourway is love. Every human being at his or her creation was made good, no matter how we are wired. God made us and said that we are good and that original blessing is always stronger than any sin we commit.
Third, no one can be placed outside the category of "our neighbor." Augustine said that Love of God and neighbor is the correct translation of any text even when it says something different. (Christian Doctrine,1.36.40) Augustine and his contemporaries weren't laboring under the religion of literalism. We are obligated to counter any literal reading of the Bible with the lens of Jesus' way of reading of Scripture which was unfailingly about reading into every text, "Love God with all your being and yourneighbor as yourself."
These three truths cannot be compromised.
These light houses of hope willnever be dimmed.
They will always prevail over time. And those who set their lives against them eventually wind up on the wrong side of history.
I was speaking with a close friend of mine last week about all of this. He is Jewish and reminded me of a famous piece of advice from the Mishna, the oral Jewish Law. Rabbi Tarfon once said, "It is not up to you to completethe work (of perfecting the world), but neither are you free to refrain from doing it." (Pirkei Avot ("Ethics of the Fathers"), the Mishna)
In these perilous waters in which you and I are journeying, the voyage is going to get very rough indeed. We will want to give up on Jesus' mission of turning the human race into the human family. Sometimes our failures will make us wonder whether the work is worth it, but we are not free to refrain from doing it.
We have given up the right to give up. I commit myself to God and to you to do everything in my power to make sure that All Saints Church not only preaches but practices these three truths that God is love, Creation and everyone in it is good, and that everyone is our neighbor.
To this work I recommit myself, so help me God. Amen.