Sunday, August 05, 2012

Blessing Claimed. Now What?

August 4, 2012 | Susan Russell | All Saints Church, Pasadena

It's always an honor to preach from the All Saints pulpit -- but today was a particular delight to stand and speak to celebrating the incremental victories of Claiming the Blessing over the last ten years and to imagine new audacious goals for the next ten.
This morning’s sermon started out titled “Blessing Claimed” – and as I worked on it it changed itself into “Blessing Claimed: Now What?”

One of my mentors and heroes is historian Fredrica Harris Thompsett – and she’s the one who taught me that the reason we bother to know our history is to back up enough to get a running start on our future. So this morning I want to spend just a few minutes giving you that “running start” by backing up for just a little bit of history.

Ten years ago this week – August 1st to be exact – I left St. Peter’s in San Pedro where I was the associate rector and chaplain to the day school to begin a new ministry as Executive Director of something called “Claiming the Blessing.”

Forged out of the crucible of what some have called “The Anglican Inclusion Wars” Claiming the Blessing was the brainchild of a small group of visionary leaders – including several from All Saints Church – who imagined a collaborative ministry bringing together organizations, congregations and individual justice leaders committed to the common dream of the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the work and witness of the Episcopal Church.

Our rector emeritus George Regas famously said that those who work for justice are called “to set audacious goals and to celebrate incremental victories.”

The audacious goal “Claiming the Blessing” set was a pretty audacious one: “promoting wholeness in human relationships, abolishing prejudice and oppression, and healing the rift between sexuality and spirituality in the Church.”

And we committed to starting out by identifying an achievable goal and then creating a strategy to achieve it.

And so on August 1, 2002 Claiming the Blessing set up shop in the southeast cubicle in the “temporary” trailer in the north driveway of All Saints Church and we got to work on our “achievable goal.” Our initial commitment was obtaining approval of a liturgical blessing of the faithful, monogamous relationship between two adults of any gender at General Convention in 2003. Then the arc of history bent a little closer to justice on June 7, 2003 when Canon Gene Robinson was elected by the Diocese of New Hampshire to be their 9th bishop, and our agenda expanded to include securing consents to his election.

It has – to say the least -- been a very full ten years. Ten years of theology statements and blog posts; of fundraising letters and General Convention campaigns -- and more parish halls, small groups, legislative committee sessions, open hearings and closed-door-meetings than you can shake a stick at.

Here are three quick stories from my “that was then” file:

In the early days of Claiming the Blessing I traveled all around the church presenting our case and our theology statement. In one diocese, folks worked VERY hard to get me a meeting with their bishop. We got the meeting – with a few conditions: No one could know he was meeting with me. We had to park in the back alley and come up the freight elevator. I had to wait in the elevator while the very nervous Canon to the Ordinary made sure the coast was clear. And we met for an hour. And he was very cordial. And we did NOT get his vote in Minneapolis.

The second story is about the House of Bishops’ Theology Committee which was charged with coming up with a “theology of human sexuality” that included addressing issues around homosexuality but did not include actually talking to any actual gay or lesbian people. When someone – that would be “us – brought that to their attention they flew me and my colleague Michael Hopkins to Chicago where we were ushered into a conference room with a circle of bishops and two empty chairs and were given a whole 90 minutes so they could cross off “included the voices of gays and lesbians” on their “to do” list.

And then there was Minneapolis in 2003 when the Episcopal Church was breaking news and CNN’s Susan Candiotti was interviewing me and Kendall Harmon the Canon Theologian for the Diocese of South Carolina and asked Canon Harmon: “Help me and our viewers understand why this issue is the one that is splitting the church.” And Kendall Harmon looked at the camera and he said “Because homosexuality is like putting milk in a car. It just doesn’t work.” And she looked at me with an expression that said “Where do I go next with this?” And I thought “if milk in a car” is the best the Canon Theologian from South Carolina can do then I think we’ve got this one.

What a difference a decade makes.

You’ve heard me talk about the Gospel According to Margaret Mead before: “Never doubt that a small group of faithful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Over these last ten years the faithful committed people of Claiming the Blessing – and their allies – have seen the case for inclusion we were making from the fringes of the Church become a commitment to inclusion coming from the center of the Church.

During that decade our case became the Church’s case. In 2005 the Episcopal Church made the case for inclusion to the wider Anglican Communion in “To Set Our Hope on Christ” and in 2009 the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music began the three year “Blessing Project” collecting and developing theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same-gender relationships.

And then last month the “Claiming the Blessing” bunch traveled to Indianapolis to finish the work we started in 2002: obtaining approval of a liturgical blessing of the faithful, monogamous relationship between two adults of any gender. And on July 10, 2012 "Claiming the Blessing" became "Blessing Claimed!" with the adoption of GC Resolution 2012-A049 authorizing – at long last – liturgical resources for the blessing of same-sex relationships.

What a difference a decade makes! The diocese where I had to come up the freight elevator to meet in secret with the bishop is now one where the current bishop is authorizing clergy to use the approved liturgies in their congregations.

The bishops who had to fly in gay and lesbian people to include in their discussions now have four openly gay or lesbian colleagues* in their house and they voted 111-41 to “Claim the Blessing” in Indianapolis.

And Kendall Harmon? He’s still the Canon Theologian in the Diocese of South Carolina and still trying to figure out that milk in the car thing … bless his heart.

Which brings me to the other gospel I have on my heart this morning -- the Gospel According to Joan Chittister: “We are each called to go through life reclaiming the planet an inch at a time until the Garden of Eden grows green again.”

The fact that some significant inches were reclaimed over the last decade – thanks at least in part to the work of Claiming the Blessing – is an incremental victory for us to celebrate today.

At the same time, making the Garden of Eden grow green again is still firmly in the “audacious goal” column – for we still have such a long way to go until that kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven we pray for every time we gather is a reality we live and not just dream we claim.

For the Garden of Eden does not yet grow green when health care remains out of reach for the poorest while tax cuts remain on the table for the richest; when the guns that made Aurora Colorado possible are easier to get than treatment for the mental illness that turns human beings into killing machines; when women and their bodies are subject to regulation but Wall Street isn’t; when sixty-seven years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki we still live under the threat of nuclear proliferation; when racism still infects our politics, sexism dominates our discourse and homophobia drives droves of Americans to line up for fried chicken sandwiches to demonstrate their support for keeping gay and lesbian Americans unprotected by the equal protection guaranteed them by their Constitution. And don’t even get me started on the icecaps in Greenland.

No. The Garden of Eden is most definitely not growing green again yet … all of which brings me to the “Now what?” part – so get ready for some new “audacious goals.”

Securing rites for blessing in 2012 didn’t conquer homophobia any more than securing votes for women in 1920 ended sexism – or Brown vs. Board of Education ended racism in 1954. Incremental victories all they deserve our celebration … even as they call us to redouble our efforts, our energies and our strategies to continue to the live out the Gospel According to Margaret Mead as we become the change we want to see as we work to turn the human race into the human family as we strive to make God’s love tangible 24/7 as we partner with God to bring that kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

And, my brothers and sisters, whether we like it or not whether we believe it or not whether it’s working or not what God has given to us – God’s partners in that work of kingdom building – to DO the work of kingdom building is – wait for it: The Church. Seriously.

Let me tell you another story: This is about a Lenten Soup Supper speaker named Thomas Jayawardene – an Anglican priest from South India who came to St. Paul’s Ventura in the 80’s when I was a young mother just back into regular churchgoing after my obligatory young adult lapsed phase. Dr. Jayawardene rocked my world by explaining that the point of the church isn’t the church, the point of the church is to build the kingdom; and he compared the relationship between church and kingdom to the relationship between scaffolding and skyscraper – the former is necessary to the creating the latter but it is NOT an end in itself. And sometimes, he said, the Church has been so focused on polishing and decorating the scaffolding that it has forgotten what it was there to build in the first place.

And just as that was news to me as a young altar guild member in the St. Paul’s Ventura parish hall back in the 80’s it is still “breaking news” for some. Let’s look quickly at the lessons appointed for today … what they tell us about the church:

The Collect for the Day – written to “collect” the themes of the lessons for the day -- begins: Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness

In Exodus we start with “the whole congregation of the Israelites complaining to Moses & Aaron” and then in the Gospel According to John we have the stellar example of the “OMG it’s a Miracle? How did he feed 5000 families with five loaves and two fish?” multitudes tracking down Jesus to say “Give us a sign so that we may see it and believe.”

Seriously? “Give us a sign???” Can’t you just imagine Jesus thinking “The 5000 with the loaves and fishes wasn’t enough of a sign for y’all? Really????” And yet here’s what Jesus said to them in response: "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

Our job – the church’s job – is to be that scaffolding that makes the building of the kingdom possible AND – as the hands of Jesus in world – to invite ALL God’s beloved human family to come to this table – to be fed by the holy food and drink of new and unending life in order to out into the world to change it.

And it wasn’t just the congregation in Exodus or the multitudes in John that missed that memo.

In 1998 when the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops adopted a resolution marginalizing gay and lesbian people I was still serving as associate rector at St. Peter’s in San Pedro. I will never forget that Sunday after that Lambeth Conference vote … when one of our communion hymns brought me both to tears and to a clearer resolve that the audacious goal of the full inclusion of ALL people at the banquet table is not just an idea Ed Bacon thought up on retreat in Philadelphia one summer but the point of everything we do within these walls and beyond:

Nor let thy spreading Gospel rest till through the world thy truth has run, till with this Bread shall all be blessed who see the light or feel the sun.

That, my brothers and sisters, is not just our audacious goal it is God’s audacious goal. And that we have the privilege to be partners in that work is what we embrace each and every time we gather … to celebrate incremental victories to be fed by the bread and wine made holy to go to be the church in the world to trust that if we build it, they will come and having come they will likewise go out into the world to invite others to come and see to come and share to come and join with us in setting ever more audacious goals: ending racism and sexism healing homophobia eradicating gun violence and the threat of nuclear proliferation transforming unjust structures of society.

I want to close this morning with a few brief “reports from the field” about how that’s going – the “if we build it, they will come” part – in words from two recent emails we’ve received here at All Saints Church:

I live in the Phoenix area and am curious if there are any churches nearby that follow the same mindset as I've been reading about on your blogs and website. I haven't been a church goer since I was a young child. This is a big thing for me to even want, but I'm so inspired by this type of Christianity it makes me want to go again.
You make me want to believe in God. As a non-Christian for what it's worth, you make me wish I believed so I could belong to a group like yours. I think the Episcopal Church just may save the soul of Christianity with its open and affirming love, which is truly Christ-like in my opinion.
How’s THAT for “an audacious goal” – anybody up for saving the soul of Christianity?

I say we go for it – and that as we continue to celebrate the “Blessing Claimed” that we make the answer to “Now what?” the audacious goal of becoming the church God is calling us to be by refusing to be the institution the culture has called us to settle for.

Let us claim the blessing of being the scaffolding that WILL build the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven will turn the human race into the human family will grow the Garden of Eden green again until the Gospel news of the God who loves you beyond your wildest imaginings has run through the world blessing absolutely all who see the light or feel the sun. Amen.


uffda51 said...

I have been tempted to say something about the milk in a car quote but I find it has left me speechless . . .or textless . . .or something . . .

MaxJMiller said...

Thank you Susan. Your words are fresh springs to my soul!