In the name of the Holy One: Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-Giver. Amen.
Sometimes I like to imagine Paul writing his letters to those little congregations he had started from scratch and whose ongoing struggles and sorrows and joys he followed as a father follows the lives of his children long after they’ve grown up enough to be out on their own.
As I imagine Paul writing those letters we still cherish and read today, I watch him search for just the right words, giving guidance and counsel and encouragement, sometimes exploding in exasperation, sometimes defending his authority to teach them, patiently laying out one more time how the life and death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ has brought us all Home to God, our Creator and heavenly Father.
When Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, I see him at one point giving a huge sigh of frustration: “What don’t they understand about the word all?!” …in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith…all of you are one in Christ…
It’s not a big word -- all. It’s a little word, a common word, a word even very young children can say and understand, an ordinary word meaning “everything” and “everybody” and “nobody’s left out.” All. What’s so hard to understand about that?
As Paul himself knew, the concept of all may not be difficult to understand but the practice of
radical inclusion requires all but the most saintly of us to stretch beyond our fears and self-centeredness in ways that demand our constant vigilance and effort and commitment and practice.
There is a part of being human that rebels against embracing all, that resists including everybody in the circle. Our resistance shows up in human development pretty clearly by the time we’re toddlers, when we discover we are separate little persons, a discovery that both terrifies and exhilarates us.
What is it about all that we don’t understand? Oh, I think it has to do with all kinds of things swimming in the depths of the shadows of our psyches. We don’t want to understand all because of our fears that there won’t be enough to go around, whether it’s dessert or love or money. We don’t want to include everybody because of our fears of the unfamiliar, of strangers, of people who don’t look and act and talk like us, of concerns for our own safety and security. We don’t want to accept all because by doing so we run counter to our own desires, our own greed and selfishness, so we dream up all kinds of logical-sounding reasons why it’s sensible and prudent to draw lines and boundaries and create hierarchies and procedures for who gets what, who’s in and who’s out, who is worthy and who is not.
Before the Holy Spirit knocked him off his high horse on the road to Damascus, Saint Paul was an expert in differentiating between people, he knew exactly how to categorize, analyze, systemize, put people in a pecking order, deem who was worthy and who was not according to a deformed and rigidified understanding of religious law. In his previous life (the life he had before his encounter with the risen Christ that changed everything), there was no one more zealous than Paul in enforcing life-and-death lines of inclusion and exclusion.
And now look at him, there he is writing his letters to his beloved churches, putting into his glorious words how we are now all new creations in Christ, the past no longer has any power over us, we are called to live in a new reality, a new world, as persons identified no longer by anything other the love of God in Jesus Christ who has made us all children of God.
And in this new life of ours, this baptized life, this life in which we have vowed to respect the dignity of every human being, we are called to an astounding diversity beyond our own preferences, inclinations, or designs.
Living into the all is reminding ourselves, a hundred times a day if necessary, that we belong to the family of God, and that is what identifies us – not our achievements, not our family background, not our political affiliations nor our social status, not even our precious self-expressions. Our Way is not about us; it’s about God, the God whose face we have seen in Jesus.
Paradoxically – and our faith is nothing if it’s not paradoxical! – we grow up in our faith when we acknowledge our failure to stand on our own. Only then are we broken open to trust in the grace of God rather than in our own merits. In our dependence on God’s grace we discover we are one in the Body of Christ. We are one in the family of God. All of us. All.
Except it’s so hard to stay grounded in that new creation, that alternative reality, isn’t it? It’s so easy, so human, so tempting to go back to the old ways of thinking that to be “good enough” means I have to be “better than,” that some people are better and more valuable than others, and that there are others who must be kept out.
It’s hard, spiritual work to stay grounded in the new creation, to keep making the circle bigger when it’s really uncomfortable to be stretched that far. It’s not easy to live in God’s kingdom on earth right now, this day because…well, because we do get afraid, and we are greedy, we lose our grip and we lose our trust that there really is enough of God’s love to go around and we begin to doubt that all things will be well, in God’s good time. We try to get by with being merely nice and polite, and we forget that God’s Kingdom isn’t about good manners, it’s about a life-changing alternative reality in which we are to see one another – everyone; all – as our brothers and sisters.
The Episcopal Church has known something of the pain and the cost of enlarging the circle in Christ’s name. At our General Convention last summer, bishops, clergy and lay deputies voted overwhelmingly and without a great deal of fanfare to lift the self-imposed three-year moratorium in our church on the election and consecration of openly gay bishops, a moratorium requested by the leadership of the Anglican communion. After three years of compliance and continuing attempts to engage in mutual dialogue, our national Episcopal church discerned, one more time, that the way we are hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit is to go forward with our commitment to not exclude any member of Christ’s church from consideration for any ministry in our church on the basis of sexual orientation, gender, race, or anything else of that order.
Here at Trinity, Ashland we are nearly all of one mind on this issue, so much so that I sometimes take flak because I don’t preach more about inclusion of those with different sexual orientations. My response is that I think this congregation is at the point where the only thing that matters to us is whether a person wants to worship God with us and join with us as we try to be Christ’s hands and heart, his Body, in the world.
A couple of years ago I got a phone call from someone doing a survey; the person asked how many gay and lesbians we had in positions of leadership in our congregation. I had to stop and think because it wasn’t a category that made any sense to me, nor, I believe, to the vast majority of us. Male or female, straight or gay, comfortably well-off or on food stamps, of color or not of color, old or not so old, native Oregonian or from a foreign land (like California) -- what difference does it make in this place? Democrat or Republican…well, we need to work on that one. And I’m serious about that. We are individuals with our own distinct gifts and peculiarities, but the only thing that matters here is that we are the family of God, the church of Christ, and you are welcome.
As you may have heard, our national Episcopal Church is again in hot water with some parts of the worldwide Anglican Communion over the consecration a few weeks ago of two women bishops in the Diocese of Los Angeles, one of whom happens to be a lesbian in a committed relationship.
Last Sunday, our Presiding Bishop, Katherine, had been invited to preach and celebrate the Eucharist at Southwark Cathedral in England. In the week prior to her visit, the Lambeth office of the Archbishop of Canterbury pressured Katherine’s office to provide evidence of her ordination to each order of ministry – deacon, priest, and bishop. Then, the Archbishop of Canterbury directed our Presiding Bishop that she was not to wear her mitre, the symbolic hat that bishops wear. She could carry her hat, but not put it on her head. Nor was she to carry a crozier, the symbolic shepherd’s crook that bishops carry in the liturgy. Some bloggers are referring to this incident as Mitregate; or, Kat in the Hat.
Oh dear. What is it about all that some of us still don’t understand?
Back home this week in a meeting with her executive council, Bishop Katherine briefly described the incident and said it was “nonsense” and “bizarre, beyond bizarre.” When the press got wind of the story, she had her spokesperson make the following statement: “there isn’t anything more to say. Rather, Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori and the Executive Council are focused on the mission and ministry of the church.”
I must admit I’ve gotten hooked by this latest story of who is acceptable and who is not in the church. A British reporter (and I want to thank Catherine Windsor for directing my attention to this source), a British reporter pointed out that the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, The Very Rev. Colin Slee, had been put in very awkward position. He was the one who had invited Katherine in the first place, as he has invited a number of women bishops from other parts of the Anglican Communion to preach and celebrate at the cathedral. At Evensong last Sunday, the dean addressed the situation; as I read his remarks, I hope you’ll hear whispers and echoes of the words Paul wrote to that Galatian church so long ago:
There are several reasons for the fury, Dean Slee said in his Evensong homily. The presiding bishop is a woman and some people hate the idea of women as bishops. The General Synod of the Church of England is about to debate the admission of women as bishops within the Church of England. The church in the United States has just consecrated an openly lesbian woman as a suffragan bishop in Los Angeles and so they are accused of breaking an embargo on such consecrations. It is not nearly so simple.
We welcome Katherine Jefferts Schori to this pulpit, he continued, because we love our sisters and brothers in the Episcopal Church of the United States; not because she is a female, or a woman bishop ahead of us, or has permitted a practicing lesbian to become a bishop; we welcome her because she is our sister in Christ.
[The actions of the Episcopal Church] in recent months, he said, have been entirely in accord with the Anglican ways of generosity and breadth. They have tried to ensure everyone is recognized as a child of God. They have behaved entirely in accord with their canon laws and their freedom as an independent province of the church, not imposing or interfering with others with whom they disagree but proceeding steadily and openly themselves.
In her sermon last Sunday morning, Bishop Katherine preached on the story from Luke about a
woman off the streets who crashed a dinner party, washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with hair, offending nearly everybody present. Katherine then asked: “What makes us so afraid of the other?”
That’s such a big part of the problem, isn’t it, the problem we have with all – that underneath all our bluster and self-righteousness, we are afraid of the other, the ones who are different, the ones who make us uneasy, the ones we’d rather not have to deal with. Our anxiety ratchets up and the lines get drawn in the dirt, and people get hurt, or worse.
In the gospel stories, over and over and over again, Jesus encounters and engages those beyond the familiar inclusionary lines, he heals those whom everyone else is afraid of, he eats with those with whom no one else will eat. Over and over and over again, Jesus shows us what all looks like. And the picture both terrifies and exhilarates us.
In the gospel story this week, Jesus crosses over to the other side, the other shore where the Gentiles live and where they raise pigs to feed the legions of Roman soldiers who are bivouacked near by. The first person Jesus encounters is a man half-alive, out of his mind, barely human, living among the dead; he is naked, violent, unpredictable, in every way ‘unclean’ and utterly alone in the world. Jesus drives out his demons and heals him in body, mind, spirit and in relationship. Naturally the man begged to stay with Jesus, but Jesus says: “No, go home. Now you have a home again; go back there, that is where your ministry is. Tell the people you know how much God has done for you.” For many of us, ministry is going back to our own homes and proclaiming to those we know how much Christ has done for us.
Bishop Katherine ended her sermon last week with these words:
There is room for us all at this table, there are tears of welcome and a kiss for the wanderer, and the sweet smell of home.
Want to join the feast? You are welcome here. Love has saved you.
Love has saved you.
Love has saved us all.