Preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Summit, NJ
Please pray with me: (Sung) You gotta give a little. Take a little. And let your poor heart break a little. That's the glory of, that's the story of love. Amen. >
And when Jesus saw that (the scribe) had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the reign of God." Mark 12:34
In many ways, the task of the preacher is very much like the exchange between Jesus and the scribe which we just heard read from St. Mark's Gospel. The preacher reads and studies the portion of Holy Scripture assigned for the service and then brings a question to her (or his) prayer life for Jesus to answer. The preacher then takes that question and struggles with it to find an answer she can bring to the congregation in the form of a sermon. The best the preacher can hope for, having given the text her best shot, is for Jesus to whisper this response into her meditation and prayer, "You are not far from the reign of God."
The next best thing, of course, is for an appreciative audience ^V a congregation which gets something from the message. Which is why I often sing. I figure, if you get nothing from my words, you may get something from the song I use to illustrate the gospel point. I mean, what would Rodgers be without Hammerstein? Or Sondheim without Lapine? Right? Just don't ask me for a combination like Ebb and Fosse. I can't dance. Don't ask me.
Given the exchange we heard in tonight's gospel, I spent the better part of the last couple of weeks struggling to ask Jesus why it is that the church ^V most particularly, the Episcopal Church -- has been having such apoplexy around the issue of blessing the relationships of people who are the same gender.
One of my very dear friends, who describes himself as a ^Qmoderate conservative' has been lobbing me as a newly elected delegate to General Convention 2000 to vote against the approval of blessing same gender relationships. He thinks we need more time to heal after the sense of "betrayal" on the part of conservatives by the Philadelphia 11, those brave and courageous women who took justice into their own hands after being betrayed themselves by those who wanted them to be "patient" and "wait until the scars of the Viet Nam War have healed".
He's really afraid of schism - of some entire dioceses breaking away from the Episcopal Church. Well, some of those bishops have been threatening to leave the church since 1974 over the ordination of women, and they haven't left yet. They've just made everybody miserable ^V themselves included - by always threatening to leave. These are the same men who nod their heads in somber agreement every time they hear the MLK, Jr. quote, "Justice delayed is justice denied." Quite frankly, I don't think they want to leave. I don't think they will. Truth be told, I hope they don't, because, when you love somebody or something, as the song goes . . . You gotta win a little. Loose a little. And always sing the blues a little. That's the story of, that's the glory of love. If, as Jesus tells us this evening, the highest Gospel value is that of love ^V of God, of self, and of others ^V then, what's all the fuss? Pronouncing God's blessing is the role of the church. I checked the Book of Occasional Services 1991 and discovered that we have Blessings for 16 different Lay Ministries of the Church ^V including parish visitors, servers at the altar, singers, and even a miscellaneous category for "other lay ministries". But that's not all! We have 22 different blessings for church furnishings and ornaments ^V including, but not limited to pictures and statues, chairs, benches and candlesticks, as well as an organ or other musical instruments.
Additionally, our Prayer Book allows us to bless grave sites and columbarium niches, water and oil for blessing, and we conclude most services of worship by blessing entire congregations of people with impunity and without being careful to check their gender before we bless them, much less the state of their souls, to see if they are, indeed, worthy of blessing!
Could it be that the church has lost sight of her original mission? I'm asking a question ^V of Jesus, and of you, the sacred body of Christ. I might understand a bit if we were asking for marriage, which is, in fact, a separate question. That's the question for the State. I know many people who disagree with me on this, but to my way of thinking, there's marriage and then there's blessing. And, in my mind, the two are very separate and distinct. The state has bestowed upon the church right to perform marriages, but the role which God has bestowed upon the church is that of blessing.
Has the church lost sight of her original mission? A few paragraphs before this story of the exchange between the scribe and Jesus, in Chapter 12, vs13-17, Mark's gospel tells the story of Jesus being challenged by some of the Pharisees and Herodians. "Is it lawful," they asked him, "to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" And, asking them for a coin, Jesus put this question to them, "Who's likeness and inscription is this?" When they identified Caesar, Jesus said, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."
Heterosexual people now have the benefit of both marriage and blessing. It's ironic to me that, as lesbian and gay people, we already have both rights. We have the right of the church's blessing by baptism AND we have the civil right to marriage as adult citizens. The problem is not that we are ASKING the church to bless us and the state to marry us. The problem is that we are being DENIED both our ecclesiastical and civil rights.
The other, real problem, however, is that we're not talking just about rights -- either in the governance of the state or in the church. To argue from this single perspective only diminishes the fullness of who we are and what we are in Christ. The real question is, how far have we gotten from the Reign of God? How far, as individuals and as a church, have we gotten from the Reign of God?
That's the question I've been struggling with to preach to you tonight. Theologian Bill Countryman first articulated this position and I agree with him. I think we've been going at this all wrong. I think we've been asking questions like lawyers. We've all been watching too much Perry Mason or LA Law or Law & Order. This isn't about who's right and who's wrong. Who's in or who's out. Who has the right and who doesn't. That may be the way the legal question of marriage will be decided, but it's not the way for the Body of Christ to do its work.
The real question for the church is this: What, in heaven's name, is God doing? Why, at this particular point in history, are there so many lesbians and gay people in the church? Why, after being treated so poorly, in some cases, so violently, would any sane gay man or lesbian woman want any part of the church? Why is God leading us into the Body of Christ? Why are we seeking the sacraments and sacramental acts of the church? What might God have in mind to teach the church about the presence of gays and lesbians?
Might it have anything to do with re-covering or re-visioning the Church's original mission? As I struggle with this issue in light of tonight's gospel, I think this is precisely what Jesus is saying. According to the Catechism or Outline of Faith in the Book of Common Prayer (pg 855), the mission of the Church is, and I quote, to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. That's all people, not some. That's unity -- with God and each other. What better way to accomplish this than to bring in yet another set of society's outcasts into the fullness of the church? What a better sign and wonder for the rest of the world of the fullness of the Realm of God? Of the true unconditional nature of the Love of God?
I don't know why you come to church ^V whether you are gay or straight, male or female, black or white. I don't know why you might or might not want God's blessing on your relationship. I have a confession to make: After 22 years, Barbara and I are still living in sin. Oh, we exchanged vows and rings when we first got together. We sat on a beach in Cape Cod and shivered in the November cold as the ocean roared it's approval and the sea gulls shouted their "Alleluia's" and "Amen's". It was high dyke drama, and it was absolutely fabulous!
But, we still have not had our relationship blessed in the church. Oh, once, about 12 years ago in honor of our 10th anniversary, our parish priest came to our home and, in front of God and about two-thirds of the members of our church, blessed our house and our family and our relationship. That was also wonderful. But, we have never stood before a priest and the Altar of God, with our family and friends assembled in the congregation, and used an approved or adapted rite of the Church. And, you know what? I don't think I want or need to.
I think, for our 25th Anniversary, we might do what Louie Crew and Ernest Clay recently did for their 25th: we might renew our vows in the midst of the gathered assembly. In the church. With our bishops and priests officiating. And then, we'll have a big party with lots of food and, of course, an Episco- Disco -- until midnight!
That's not because we don't believe in blessing or marriage for lesbian or gay couples; indeed, we do. As I was privileged to witness the Blessing of the Renewal of Louie and Ernest's 25 year old vows, I gained a new insight: if it is true, as MLKJr., said, that "justice delayed is justice denied", then surely that moment revealed that "justice fulfilled is justice blessed."
I believe what Jesus told us is true: what is bound on earth is bound in heaven and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven. No one of us, gay or straight, actually NEEDS the church to bless anything in our lives, you know. A sacramental blessing is simply an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace. The church, in blessing the couple, only makes obvious that which already is. The real blessing is the gift of grace to do that which God has given us to do. And the gift of grace is this: faithfulness. To each other. To the beloved community of modern-day Samaritans: lesbian gay, bisexual and transgender people. To the church -- especially that part of the church which would not be faithful to us. To the work of justice. To hope. To a God who loves absolutely everybody unconditionally. Faithfulness to this vocation is it's own blessing ^V to the couple, to the community, and to God.
I believe there is great joy in heaven whenever two adults -- of any age or gender or color or financial or educational circumstance, in any combination thereof ^V are called to be together. I believe that all relationships are a vocation ^V that we are called into relationship with each other by God. Just as our professions are our vocations, so are our relationships. Just as celibacy is a call, so is the call to monogamy.
And, when we head that call, when adults make a vow before God to love and to cherish, to have and to hold, to honor and protect each other, in sickness and in health, till death do them part, or to be a member of a religious community -- I believe that all the angels and archangels, all the cherubim and seraphim become absolutely ecstatic.
Why do I believe this? Because when people love each other and make commitments to each other, I believe that we see a little more clearly the face of God. I believe that, in seeing more clearly the face of God in each other, we can love -- God and ourselves and each other -- more deeply. And, I believe that when we love God more deeply, we are compelled to serve God by serving humankind. Because, I believe, when we know the unconditional love of God through another's unconditional love, we are more apt to love others unconditionally.
Because Jesus has told us that the first great commandment is that you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.
And, in order to live out this high calling, it always helps to be in relationship with another person. To have a companion on the journey - a friend for the road. Someone you can huddle with when the winds of misfortune howl at your door. Someone you can celebrate with when the sun shines and all is right with the world. Someone you can laugh and cry with, sing and play with, skip and dance with. For, to have someone like that in your life brings you to a place where, you can be assured, you are not far from the Reign of God.
As long as there's the two of us, we've got the world and all it's charms. And when the world is through with us, we'll have each other's arms.
You've got to give a little. Take a little. And let your poor heart break a little. That's the story of, that's the glory of Love.
Well, that's my best shot. Amen. 2/9/99
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