Monday, July 13, 2015

When Justice Rolls Down -- a Post-General Convention Sermon

Sermon for Proper 10B at All Saints Church, Pasadena July 12, 2015 | Susan Russell

Can you hear it? Listen with me and maybe we can hear it together: beyond the buzz of city traffic, the hum of the air conditioning system the rustle of Sunday bulletins and the ping of a text message coming in on an iPhone …

There! Can you hear it? It is the sweet, sweet sound of the arc of history bending toward justice.

 It is the sound of these words from the United States Supreme Court decision on civil marriage equality: “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” 

It is the sound of these words from the General Convention of the Episcopal Church on sacramental marriage equality: “… will make provision for all couples asking to be married in this Church to have access to these liturgies.”

It is the sound of the ovation that greeted the election of Bishop Michael Curry as the 27th and 1st African American Presiding Bishop and CEO – Chief Evangelism Officer – of the Episcopal Church.
It is the sound of 1500 Episcopalians led by 60 bishops singing, praying and marching in the streets of Salt Lake City to stand against gun violence. It is the sound of the President of the United States singing “Amazing Grace” in tribute to the Charleston Martyrs.

And it is the sound of a Confederate battle flag being lowered from the flagpole on the South Carolina Capitol grounds in what has been named “a signal of good will and healing, and a meaningful step towards a better future.”

My brothers and sisters, it has been an amazing couple of weeks with some sweet, sweet sounds of that arc of history bending toward justice. And so -- for all the work there is yet to do in this beautiful and broken world -- this morning we claim the words famously said and frequently quoted about the justice journey from our rector emeritus, George Regas: Our job is to set audacious goals and to celebrate incremental victories. 

It is true without question that there are many audacious goals yet to be achieved in our work of turning the human race into the human family. But it is also true without question that this morning we have incremental victories worthy of celebration. And – because I had the privilege of being in the middle of some of those at our just completed General Convention I want to dwell a little on some of that work with you this morning.

The Episcopal Church was in a history making mood. Meeting in Salt Lake City from June 25 – July 3 the triennial gathering of bishops, clergy and laity was charged with making decisions for the whole church -- and the decisions it made included: The historic election North Carolina Bishop Michael Curry to succeed Katharine Jefferts Schori as our next Presiding Bishop and the adoption of resolutions making the sacrament of marriage equally available to same and opposite gender couples. 

Bishop Curry – known for his powerful preaching, prophetic leadership and commitment to evangelism and social justice – was elected on June 27th by a land-slide on the first ballot by the bishops of the Episcopal Church – and that election was enthusiastically affirmed by an overwhelming majority of the clergy and laity meeting in the House of Deputies.

A few days later on July 1st – the seventh day of its nine day legislative calendar – the House of Deputies concurred with the House of Bishops’ approval of a canonical change eliminating language limiting the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman and authorizing two new marriage rites with language equally applicable to same-sex or opposite-sex couples.

It was – quite simply – stunning.

Instead of lines of people to testify “pro & con” there were a handful of opposing voices. Instead of threats to leave the church, there were compromises that kept virtually everyone at the table. One picture stands out for me – a ballroom full of empty chairs for an Open Hearing – an icon of “what if they gave a controversy and nobody came.” 

Almost exactly thirteen years ago – on August 1, 2002 – I took up residence here at All Saints Church in the corner office of the “temporary building” to launch the Churchwide initiative we named “Claiming the Blessing” with the audacious goal of the full inclusion of all the baptized in all the sacraments.

In 2002, Michael Hopkins – a founding member of Claiming the Blessing – wrote these words in his “Message to the Church:”

“This movement is not about getting our way or else. This movement is a means to further the healthy debate within the Church, to deepen it on a theological level, to begin to articulate how we see the blessing of same-sex unions as a part of the Church’s moving forward in mission rather than hindering mission. We believe that it is time for the church to claim the blessing found in the lives of its faithful lesbian and gay members and to further empower them for the mission of the Church. We are trying to find a way forward in this endeavor that holds as much of this church we love together as possible.”

Thirteen years later, with many incremental victories and set-backs along the way, our 2015 mantra leading up to this General Convention was a biblical one: Matthew 5:37 “Let your yes be yes.”

And thirteen years later, with overwhelming votes of support in both houses – and with an extraordinary spirit of compassion, inclusion and cohesion in the debate, discourse and decision making -- the Episcopal Church “let its yes be yes” arguably ending decades of what have come to known as “The Inclusion Wars” and inarguably achieving the audacious goal Claiming the Blessing set before the church in 2002.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is something to rejoice and be glad in.

It also bears noting on this day of celebrating incremental victories that the Episcopal Church made these historic decisions on marriage just days after the historic Supreme Court decision -- creating a truly an unprecedented opportunity for evangelism.

Many of you have heard me get on this particular soapbox many times over the years, but as we sit here this morning, I guarantee you that we are surrounded by a city full of those yearning for a spiritual home, not knowing that All Saints would welcome them with open arms; those starving for spiritual sustenance yet bypassing this banquet we offer every Sunday morning, not knowing that the table is set for them; those rejecting the Christian Gospel because what they hear described in the media as Christian Moral Values sound neither moral nor valuable; convinced that they know enough about being a Christian not to want to be one. And who would blame them.

And so it is our job – all of our jobs – to let them know they have a choice. To let them know that if they’re looking for spiritual community we’re here. And that if they think they know enough about being a Christian not to want to be one the good news is they just might be wrong and we’d love them to come learn more here at All Saints Church.

And that good news is NOT just for LGBT couples – or even for LGBT people hoping someday to be part of a couple – but for people like blogger Olivia Jewel Sage whose July 8th Open Letter on Why We are Breaking Up (Or Why I Am Leaving the Church I Grew Up In) has gone viral.

It begins:

Dear Church 
If I told you: “It’s not you, it’s me,” I would be lying to the both of us. 
It is you. 

And goes on to say:

“This new church I met (It’s the Episcopal Church) loves all of my friends equally. When I told my priest that my best friend was gay, he was totally cool with it. In fact, as of last week, my best friend can get married in my new church – full on married, with all the sacraments. You, on the other hand, told me he was going to hell. So don’t call me selfish for abandoning you, and don’t tell me that my soul is in danger when it isn’t. I have never felt more sure about anything since I decided to move. I see an inclusive church, one I can understand and one that, in turn, understands humanity. I see a place where I can actually make a difference for Christ, regardless of gender, race, or sexuality. I can make a difference because I am human.” 

I can make a difference because I am human.

These words of Olivia Jewel Sage are nothing less than a four alarm glory attack for those of us who have been at work in the fields of inclusion for lo these many years.

Because the truth is this struggle has never been about inclusion for inclusion’s sake – but for the fullest possible participation of all God’s beloved human family into the gospel work and witness of making God’s love tangible to absolutely everyone. Full on love. #Period

I got involved in an exchange on Facebook this week in response to a colleague who wrote asking for answers for a seven year old who came to her church for the first time asking two really basic questions.

Why do you go to church? and
Is God magic?

Drawing on my mother-of-two and seven-years-as-day-school-chaplain credentials, I responded:

• Because being in church on Sunday helps me remember how much God loves me so I can remember to love everybody else all week long … and
• Love is magic and since love comes from God it is a kind of magic we call "mystery." Not the kind of magic in cartoons or on "Frozen" ... but the kind of magic that heals broken hearts and makes you feel safe when you're feeling scared and alone.

And later I thought whether they come from a seven year old or a seventy year old, those are two of the questions the Episcopal Church is better able to answer for those who come asking now that we are on the other side of the Inclusion Wars; and our energy is focused not on who might leave if we include everyone but on who will come if we welcome, include and empower everyone.

Because if it is true – and I believe it is – what Richard Rohr and Ed Bacon have been telling us; if it is true that healed people heal people then it is not too much to believe this morning that a healed church can heal the world and that the healing of division in the Episcopal Church is fitting us for exactly that purpose.

It is not too much to trust that it is nothing less than the magic and mystery of God’s love that heals, transforms and then sends us out to be vehicles of healing and transformation – to make justice roll down for absolutely everybody. Absolutely. Everybody.

Because the justice the psalmist proclaimed in Psalm 85 – “Justice will lean down from heaven … justice and peace have embraced” is the same justice Former Presiding Bishop John Hines famously named as “the corporate face of God’s love.”

Justice is not some disembodied political or ethical idea – it is nothing less than God’s love made tangible in our lives as we go out into the world empowered to live our lives aligned with God’s values of love, justice and compassion.

Our Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry framed it this way in his closing sermon in Salt Lake City last week:

“God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to change the world, to change it from the nightmare it often can be into the dream that God intends. We are the Jesus Movement now. Jesus came to change the world, and we have been summoned as followers of this Jesus; to participate in God’s work, God’s mission of changing and transforming this world.” 

That is the audacious goal we have been given – a changed and transformed world. And the challenges between us and that goal are great – make no mistake about that.

And so my prayer for all of us this morning is that we be given the grace to claim the incremental victories of these past couple of weeks as strength for the journey ahead.

That the experience of the power of justice rolling down in a Supreme Court decision, in a General Convention resolution, in a Presiding Bishop election, in a Presidential eulogy, in a flag coming down will empower us to keep on keepin’ on until that kingdom has come on earth as it is in heaven. 

To keep on changing and transforming the world a decision at a time, a resolution at a time, an election at a time, an inch at a time … a bend of the arc of history at a time.

Can you hear it? Listen with me -- and maybe we can hear it together. And if you know it, sing it … Let justice roll;
Roll down like waters.
And righteousness
Like a flowing stream.


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