Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 24, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Mmmm…. Wine. John the Evangelist was brilliant to begin his account of Jesus’s public ministry with this miracle; now he has our attention. But the way this miracle happens is really important. It’s important that Mary sets things in motion, and it’s important that Jesus works with water, rather than conjuring the wine from thin air, and it’s quite important that John goes out of his way to tell us the jars were “for the Jewish rites of purification,” but I don’t have time to talk about those details today. Because there’s another ingredient that this miracle requires, one as essential as it is intangible. Obedience. Mary tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you,” and they do, twice. They could have ignored, complained, argued, made fun of his request for water. They didn’t work for him, or for Mary, so their obedience was truly voluntary. For a moment, they united in the words and the person of Jesus, and that was all it took for them to participate in a miracle.
Kind of the opposite thing happened at the Primates’ Meeting last week. For those of you who aren’t well-versed in the structure of the Anglican Communion, the word “primates” is the unfortunate term for the heads of the 38 national and international churches which are in communion with the See of Canterbury. We have to have a generic word because these churches are headed by bishops with different titles, who are selected by different processes, and who hold different kinds of authority within the churches they lead. Some of you have heard that The Episcopal Church was “suspended” from the Anglican Communion at this meeting, but that’s a gross distortion. It’s true that some conservative primates supported a statement which said that because the Episcopal Church has made the sacrament of marriage available to same-sex couples, I quote, “we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”
That’s a shame, but it’s only one part of a story, with plenty of shame to go around, as well as plenty of grace. It’s a shame that the mainstream media couldn’t be bothered to understand the situation or even do basic fact checking, and so we get ridiculous headlines like the Washington Post’s “Anglican Communion suspends the Episcopal Church after years of gay rights debates.” Here’s the thing: While a formal Primates’ Meeting is one of the “instruments of unity” of the Anglican Communion, the event is only for thought, prayer, and consultation, and we’ve only been having them since 1978. The Primates’ Meeting doesn’t have the authority to determine the extent of the Episcopal Church’s participation in anything, much less our membership in the Anglican Communion. It’s as if the majority members of a congressional committee said they were denying the minority’s right to vote on bills… while the committee was in recess. They don’t have the authority and that’s not how it works. No wine for you!
But of course everyone is trying to use this non-event for their own purposes. Conservatives are claiming victory, or expressing glee, and their smugness makes me sick. Even though I support same-sex marriage, or perhaps because I do, I find the reaction of some liberals to be even more repugnant. Some are expressing transparent self-righteousness and ugly, ignorant attitudes toward the conservatives, many of whom are African. Yes, I’m irritated by the conservatives’ attacks on our position, and I disagree with their reading of scripture and their sacramental theology, but I also know that they live out their vocations in circumstances I can barely imagine.
While America has a long way to go toward the complete acceptance of non-heterosexual people, the situations that some of these conservative bishops will go home to are appalling. Some of them have to minister in places so hostile to Christianity that churches are burned, and the tents set up to replace them are also demolished. Some of them minister in places where homosexual acts are punishable by life in prison. They can’t just duplicate our Western liberal standards of equality. Yet… they didn’t spend all their time chastising the Episcopal Church. Here’s something the primates also published that didn’t make headlines: “The Primates condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation. This conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. The Primates reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.
The Primates recognise that the Christian church and within it the Anglican Communion have often acted in a way towards people on the basis of their sexual orientation that has caused deep hurt. Where this has happened they express their profound sorrow and affirm again that God’s love for every human being is the same, regardless of their sexuality, and that the church should never by its actions give any other impression.”
We need more grace and mercy on both sides of the dialogue. I’m not trying to defend the conservative bishops, I’m just trying to prevent their being demonized by people who are supposed to be better than that. More Episcopalians need to understand that the conservative bishops are taking a risk by supporting a position that is, in their own countries, so progressive that it places them in danger, and their efforts to decriminalize homosexuality in their own countries deserve our support. And I want our own church’s liberals to take the high road and elevate the discourse to Christian standards, and I want us to see in this mess an opportunity to help the gay people of Africa instead of an opportunity to score political points. And most of all I want both sides to quit bickering and posturing and renew our commitment to following Jesus, for that’s the only way we will get anywhere worth going.
I don’t want to be in a church that’s not centered on Jesus Christ. I don’t expect all of us to agree, and I don’t even expect that we’ll never hurt each other. But I do expect us to keep Jesus at the center of our church, our hearts, and our minds. I expect us to make his Gospel the standard of our behavior, and when anyone falls short, I expect everyone involved to turn to Jesus, and his sure and certain forgiveness. Jesus is our only hope for unity. His love is our only hope for salvation, not only salvation from eternal death, but also salvation from ourselves. His grace is our only hope for civility and mutual understanding.
Our brilliant, and eloquent, and suffering primate, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, understands this only too well, and his response to his brother primates’ rejection gives me hope for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. He said, “I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain. The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow Primates in the Anglican family.”
If we can follow Presiding Bishop Curry, renewing our commitment to walk in love as disciples of Jesus, renewing our identity as servants who freely choose to obey Jesus, we may yet taste the wine of miracles.
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