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A series of essays towards General Convention in 2003 and beyond

Christianity as the earthiest and least otherworldly of all religions

Christianity as the earthiest and least otherworldly of all religions

By The Rev. Lane Denson

A Sermon at St Ann Church, Nashville, TN

Pent 12/15B / 17viii03

George Bernard Shaw once asked, "Why should we take advice on sex from the pope? If he knows anything about it, he shouldn't."

A couple of weeks ago at the General Convention in Minneapolis, this church got what some, perhaps many, thought was a primer on sex. We barely made it through to the finals. But the problem was the same as always. For in fact, what we got that seemed only about sex was in reality a much needed lesson on becoming human and on continuing to be the kind of family in which that is best made possible.

William Temple, one of the greater archbishops of Canterbury, spoke of Christianity as the earthiest and least otherworldly of all religions. By that, I believe he meant to affirm the Incarnation as God's radical way of reminding us that we are already spiritual beings by virtue of our  creation, that Jesus is God's example for our humanity, and that our vocation is not to be more spiritual, but to be more human.

It is through that human becoming and our relation to and understanding of God not only that the Scriptures were written and codified, but that our subsequent tradition was built, and the reason and experience that we bring to bear upon it is employed. We cannot, we dare not rely upon one at the expense of the other, no matter what.

John's in-your-face gospel this morning makes that brutally clear. Jesus is flesh and blood -- not  some stained-glass irrelevance -- and unless we consume him into our lives that way as what God means by being human, we "have no life in us" [Jn 6.53-59]. Unless we come to grips with that reality about him and about ourselves, we'll be far from experiencing that marvelous and incredible lightness of being which this gospel offers to a world sorely in need.

It seems that every time we churchers come face to face with this truth about our earthly-grounded, Jesus-centered gospel, we are shattered by crisis and by fear.

First, it was slavery, then we heard the same arguments when we marched in Selma in 1965, when we ordained women in 1974, when we regularized those ordinations in 1976, and when we consecrated Barbara Harris a Bishop in 1987. Now it's the full acceptance and recognition of gays and lesbians.

In each and every one of these self-inflicted challenges that have come our way, there was the lurking suspicion that somehow, these people -- these "others" -- either were not fully human or were too human or were the wrong kind of human, at any rate, they were not "like us," whatever we chose "like us" to mean at the time. We've been through one long shakedown cruise into the understanding of humanity and human nature, and we have not come into port yet.

Bishop Bill Sanders believed that women's ordination was the most important decision of the church in the twentieth century. All the while, his predecessor and former boss had called it "apostolic suicide."

The twenty-first century is yet too soon on the calendar to make any claims like that by Bishop Sanders, and there are many more decisions awaiting us, but the decisions out in Minneapolis will, I believe, be seen to come tolerable close to qualifying. For another General Convention -- the sole arbiter of this church's doctrine, discipline, and worship, an authority we only overlook not only at our peril, but with utter faithlessness to who and Whose we are -- has just been at work and made one thing abundantly clear.

THIS CHURCH OF OURS IS ON A ROLL! It's very much in touch with itself. And one of the primary reasons for that is the remarkable and creative ministries of hundreds of women, gays, and lesbian priests and bishops over this last quarter-century, not the least of whom is our rector in this parish. They have made it altogether clear which bishop of Tennessee is right.

With the consent to Gene Robinson's election as bishop coadjutor of New Hampshire and with a significant step forward toward claiming the blessing which is ours and that we all demand, this church has come out of the closet and entered this century, not only in faithful service to its Lord and renewed commitment to its baptismal covenant, but also as a leader and example to everyone -- to religious people of all persuasions and to those of none, to this nation, to its president, and to the world. 

So how do we come down off that high? We must, you know. We cannot just sit pretty on the mountain, cozying up with Jesus. How do we incarnate that good news over and over into our own lives? How do we make this new and radical turn in our own flesh and blood and in that of others?

I can think of some ways not to.

Our neighbors over at St Andrew's across town, punch-drunk in their apparent insecurity over  this new decision, have proudly and impulsively  blacked out on their signage any reference to their being an Episcopal church, but in turn, and ironically enough, declared their sole loyalty to the episcopate of the Bishop of Tennessee in the doing.

The rector of a parish out in Ft Worth began the liturgy last Sunday by tearing down the church flag and its standard, throwing them on the floor before the altar, then joining in the procession -- young acolytes in the lead -- to tromp and grind  that symbol under foot and declare their dissociation from the Episcopal Church then and there.

Fifteen bishops -- including the new bishop of West Tennessee -- stood before their fellows up in Minneapolis and read a eulogy for all of us  appealing to foreign primates to intervene, not just to administer CPR, but to establish a new and parallel Anglican province in America, thus showing an embarrassing naiveté (to put it mildly) concerning their own church's history and polity.

Many of us learned these kinds of approaches  and responses as junior high adolescents when neither did we care for or seem to understand the lessons or the primers from which they came. But when we grew up, we also learned to put away childish things. For these are not the way, nor can we rest as do some by denying the reality of this new world or by casting it aside as only hypothetical and not worth confronting.

Theologian Harvey Cox last week wrote in the Wall Street Journal that "The Episcopal Church has diffused a major crisis in -- there's only one  way to put it -- a very Episcopalian way... (and in doing so, it) has done the other denominations a great favor." Cox credits our unique Anglican/Episcopal understanding of authority as based in Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience -- an understanding embarrassingly overlooked by too many --  with bringing this decision ultimately to pass.

His elaboration on these themes offers a welcome refresher for us not only to answer our own questions about ourselves as well as those already being asked about us by others (WSJ, 12viii03). [The entire article is available in the narthex where you will also find a pastoral letter about his church's decision from the current Bishop of Tennessee.]

By sheer coincidence -- that's God acting anonymously -- the Old Testament lesson from the Book of Proverbs this morning tells us that wisdom's a mighty handy resource about now and, what is more, that wisdom is a woman.

"The Lord created me at the beginning of his work," she says (Prov 8.22). Which is to say that she, wisdom, was there when God made the heaven, the sea, the earth. It was as if God needed a woman's imagination to help make them, a woman's eye to make sure they were made right, a woman's spirit by which to measure their beauty.

Wisdom is not only a matter of the mind, but of the intuition and of the heart where imagination, discernment, and spirit become the very blueprint of its dimensions.  [after Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, Harper & Row, p 112, 1988]

It is from this vantage that the church must embrace its service if it would continue in this century with any relevance so to serve its Lord and to open itself to all -- even to our sisters and brothers at St Andrew's Episcopal Church across town, the parish out in Ft Worth, the bishops who would leave the House, and any others that may cry out with need.

Wisdom -- imagination, discernment, spirit. Imagination to continue to create what has never happened before. Discernment to continue to evaluate our times and our place within them, remembering Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, who admonished every Christian to keep the Bible in one hand and the daily news in the other.

Imagination, discernment, and the Spirit to reopen ourselves to a servanthood energized,  shaped, and emboldened to breach old boundaries. We must continue to pray for and adopt an empowering innerness and an explosive outwardness. One is the intensive energy of galvanizing commitment, the other, the extensive power of lavish inclusiveness that embraces the whole of humanity in a geography without boundaries [cf Bennett Sims, Servanthood: Leadership for the Third Millennium, Cowley, 1997, p 66].

All that turned the New Testament world upside down, and we needn't be surprised that it is doing so again. But then, like the discipline of yoga claims, so I'm told, perhaps it will help not only our life-sustaining systems, but our perspective and vision, as well.

So what new thing is God doing in us?

By the grace of God, we have been prophetic. Now by that same grace, we must become thoughtfully pastoral. This parish is well-equipped to assume the stole of servant leadership ordained by the church in Minneapolis. But we cannot rest in the safe security of religion and so-called orthodoxy as would so many, even the well-intentioned.

Harvey Cox says that for years now many local churches of different denominations have identified themselves as "open and welcoming" congregations. What they all report is that after an initial flurry, anybody who seemed "different" soon simply attends communion, sings in the choir, presents their children for baptism, signs up for spiritual retreats, staffs the food pantry, attends Bible study and prayer groups, and, of all things, is even elected to the vestry.

Nobody wants  to be singled out as different, nor do we want to belong to a church obsessed with catering to a special "clientele," whether they own the streets or live on the streets. We all  want to be treated with dignity and respect while we try to meet our own spiritual needs and follow the teachings of Jesus (who, by the way, never uttered a syllable about homosexuality).

Several other denominations have been stalling for years on what we have now affirmed in Minneapolis. Everyone should be welcomed. No one should be content with second-class citizenship and excluded from leadership. There is no room for pretense, least of all in the church.

We as Christians need to get past this enervating debate so that we can move on to other pressing issues that require the churches' attention, such as the growing gap between the rich and the poor -- about which Jesus did have something very clear to say.

Our church has refreshingly and deliberately come to a decision about the nagging questions that have paralyzed so many other churches. Unlike many of our fellows and leaders, I am proud of our church and that I am an Episcopalian, for together with you and you and you, I am that church. And I am not equivocating or preaching any eulogies or draping any black crepe over that proud fact.

Let us continue to embrace that selfless risk of faith and love, peace and justice, and to care for the wounded, feed the hungry, and show compassion to the brokenhearted and to the broken-spirited, perhaps any of those who've hung out the black crepe, as well. As Bishop-elect Gene Robinson reminded us so often, "We're all going to heaven, anyway, so lighten up."

You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.


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