A sermon preached by The Very Rev. Bill Maxwell at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, January 24, 2016.
I read in the papers last week that two-thirds of the Anglican primates gathered at the Canterbury cathedral voted to exclude the Episcopal Church from committees dealing with our relationships with other Christian bodies. The African and South American prelates condemn us for opening the door to same sex marriages, and for many years they have rejected our ordaining women to the priesthood and the episco- pate. The Archbishop of Uganda felt so strongly that he left the meeting rather than sit at the table with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
They don’t know it, but they were talking about me, about St. Paul’s Church. To use St. Paul’s im- age, they have said to us as a church, “Because you are not the same as us, we don’t need you.” The ear has said to the eye, “I have no need of you.”
My immediate reaction was that all Episcopal groups should simply stop sending money to those who have rejected us. The eye can say to the ear, “I have no need of you”. That will teach them.
But that would be quite wrong. The money that goes to Uganda and the others does not go into the pockets of the assorted archbishops. It goes for health care and education and food. Our money does Christ’s work, and it makes a difference in the day to day lives of poor, ordinary people.
In spite of the serious concerns of our fellow Anglicans, I believe that the Holy Spirit has led our Episcopal Church down the right path. I worked hard to open our Church to the gifts and ministries of women, because I knew the injustice involved in our all-male vestries and our all-male General Convention delegates and our all-male priesthood, and I believed that we were impoverishing ourselves by our refusal to move. I don’t want to go back to the 1960’s and beyond. And if the Church had not in 1976 affirmed the ordination of women to the priesthood, we would not know the rich gifts we receive every day from the ministry of Dianne. We are blessed.
I look at the life of this parish, and I am enormously grateful for the gifts and ministries of our les- bian and gay members. When we were in Salt Lake City, Sue and I met for a couple of years in a group of gay men and straight couples, and those meetings moved from moments of confrontation to a profound appreciation of each other. That opened me up to choose to bless a gay couple’s relationship in the mid- 1980’s, a choice I’ve never regretted. At St. Paul’s we have moved toward inclusion and acceptance, blessed the marriage of two good men, and I’m grateful for that.
Beyond our internal life, there lies the matter of our relationships with other religious bodies. There’s an old story about an elderly aristocrat who was reminded that there are many roads to God. His response was clear: Yes, but by God, sir, no gentleman would take advantage of them!
The hatred Isis has for people like us is clear. No other religious persuasion has the right to exist, and their followers may be killed or starved to death or driven from their homes. That’s certainly not a posi- tion that any of us could embrace. But years ago I was on the receiving end of less violent religious hatred, when our little church in rural Texas was broken into and the crucifix over the altar was thrown on the floor
and demolished. There was a fun moment when, because we allowed a square-dance club to use our par- ish hall, we were preached against in the “daily devotional” on the local radio station. “There’s a so-called church in this town that’s nothing but a dance-hall! They say they’re doing folk dancing, but I tell you that when they start whirling around in them circles they don’t know where they’re going to grab on!” But in spite of the moment of laughter, the hatred was there, and the Body of Christ was wounded.
I don’t know any Muslims, but I know that there are hundreds of thousands of them in this country who are wonderful, kind folks and patriotic Americans. They worship God, and they honor Jesus as a prophet. I treasure my years in Salt Lake City, where all non-Mormons were linked together as Gentiles, including the Jews. We cared for each other, worked with each other, witnessed together. And I learned to value Mormon friends. A group of us met for several years for lunch with some upper-level Mormons. We found that we could be honest with each other, with people with whom we had significant differences, and we learned to care for each other, indeed to love each other. When our cathedral enlarged its food bank, we received a commercial freezer and an ongoing supply of canned goods from the Mormon Church. We didn’t say to each other, I have no need of you.
Here at St. Paul’s, we share our space with Beth Shira Jewish community, and their ark standing in our parish hall is a constant reminder of our common heritage. We join in the work of the homeless shelter with other churches, and we worship together on a number of occasions every year. And “we” means our sisters and brothers in St. Paul’s who act and serve and give on behalf of all of us. It’s not very glamorous to chop celery and onions and carrots for the Wednesday soup lunches, or to wait on the tables seating all sorts and conditions of folks, but it is truly doing Christ’s work in Christ’s name. At the end of every eucha- rist, we are sent out into the world, guided by the Holy Spirit, to share the gifts we’ve received. And so some of us are sharing food with sick neighbors, or making sure that an elderly friend is all right, or work- ing as hospice volunteers, or mentoring students who need help — just being present in Port Townsend in a hundred different ways that contribute to the stability and health of our city. Jesus goes with us, every day.
In today’s gospel, Jesus says “Today the Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” the prophecy of Isaiah is ful- filled. The reality is that it keeps on being fulfilled. It is fulfilled in Uganda, even as their archbishop walks out on his fellow primates. It is fulfilled in rural Texas, even as some Christians continue to believe that people who dance are headed straight to hell. It is fulfilled in Salt Lake City by people on all sides of a vari- ety of serious divides. It is fulfilled in St. Paul’s Church, as a woman stands at our altar, and as gay and les- bian folks and straight folks and old folks come together to worship and to serve. It is fulfilled in the check our treasurer sends to our diocese, dollars that are used in so many ways to teach and heal and feed in Christ’s name. We are the Body of Christ here, at this moment. We disagree about a variety of things, but with God’s grace we can talk and cherish each other. No differences of opinion can be allowed to break the ties that join us in Christ.
Our annual meeting next week can feel like a boring hour of scut-work that just needs to be done. But when we open our eyes and our hearts and our treasure, we can recognize it as a few moments in which we try together to set in motion another year of our being the hands and heart and voice of Jesus in this place where we live. We are one body in Christ, and we part of that Jesus movement through which the scripture continues to be fulfilled around the world. God bless those fellow-Anglicans who worry about us. God bless us every one!