As Christians, we have one job. And it’s in five parts. The five parts of our job are defined in the Baptismal Covenant (Book of Common Prayer, p. 304), said at every Baptism and Confirmation (and any other time I can find a reason to use it). Our job description is to continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the prayers and in the breaking of the bread; to persevere in resisting evil, and when we do fall in to sin, repent and return to the Lord; to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self; and to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. I can say with boldness that our job description does not have an extra line that says, “Other duties as assigned.” Everything in who we are as followers of Jesus Christ, worshiping and serving him in the Episcopal Church, is within those five statements.
Our Collect, the prayer I said near the opening of our time together, calls on us today to remember that job description. I know it’s been a few minutes, so let me remind you of what was prayed:
O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. (Proper 9, Book of Common Prayer p. 230)
In an increasingly polarized world, I think we need this prayer more than one Sunday a year. We need to be reminded that the Holy Spirit unites us and strengthens our devotion to our Creator. It’s easy to see someone at the store or on the sidewalk and think, “That’s nice that you’re breathing the same air I am,” or “How quaint that we share a ZIP code,” and not realize how deeply connected we are to one another.
I have no doubt that you’ve been following the news the past couple of weeks. Both our federal court system and our denomination confirmed what societal patterns have been showing us for several decades now: That what we understand of marriage has been undergoing a change. On June 26th, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 5-4 that marriage is a fundamental right to all Americans. On July 1st, the House of Deputies at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, concurring with action by the House of Bishops the day before, voted overwhelmingly for the blessings of all marriages beginning the first Sunday of Advent, 2015.
The Deputies and Bishops of the 78th General Convention took many other actions during their nine-day business meeting in Salt Lake City. They elected, in a landslide, an amazing preacher, teacher, and leader to be the next Presiding Bishop. They directed money towards new ways of nurturing and developing faith communities across the country, recognizing that bricks-and-mortar buildings are the not the wave of the future. They advocated for the presence of the faithful in places that are afflicted by gun violence as a means to end that epidemic. They held open and frank conversations around topics like race and alcohol. And they did all of that in the spirit of faithful Christian love to which we are all called. But none of that made the national news. None of that was what was trending on Facebook and Twitter and other social media outlets. What sparked attention was the decision, after 39 years of conversation, study, and debate, to make the sacramental rite of marriage available to any couple that can get a marriage license at the courthouse. It should be of no surprise to anyone. CBS News, and Good Morning America, and Yahoo! News don’t really care about religion or what’s happening in a church convention. Media outlets love to go bonkers over which celebs are dating whom, and who’s not together anymore. There is something about relationships, and who’s in them and who’s not in them, that we seem to always get hung up on.
I have yet to speak with anyone who doesn’t have an opinion about the Supreme Court ruling, or how General Convention voted. There are people who were elated, saddened, overjoyed, deeply troubled, dancing in the streets, and grinding their teeth. There are also people scratching their heads, looking around for what to make of it all. I’d venture to say that all of those emotions, and maybe more, are represented in this nave today.
Just because the vote was overwhelming does not mean it was unanimous in either the House of Bishops or the House of Deputies. But it was cordial. It was respectful. It valued the person of a differing opinion and a different life circumstance. People on all sides of the issues point to Scripture to back them up, as Christians have been doing for thousands of years. Take a look at several of the conflicts in the book of Acts, especially around how and when to admit Gentiles as followers of Jesus, to see some examples. Even those at General Convention who voted in the minority, especially the 20 bishops who did so, publically pledged themselves to continue the conversation with the majority while committing themselves also to making their diocese a spiritually and emotionally safe place for everyone, regardless of their conviction. That’s not an attitude that has happened in the past.
I’m not going to stand in this pulpit and tell you how to feel about the latest developments. I’m not going to chastise you for being angry. I’m not going to tell you it’s insulting for you to be so excited. I am not going to give you a funny look if you are conflicted or confused. How you feel is how you feel.
I am going to tell you that there will be further conversations, both at Christ Church and in the Diocese of East Carolina, about marriage in the 21st Century, why and how marriage has changed over the past several decades, and prayerfully consider how we as followers of Christ can faithfully respond.
I am also going to tell you that we are going to be as cordial and as civil and as respectful as the Bishops and Deputies were at General Convention. This community, and many other communities large and small, will be watching how we as people of faith work through these issues. As we have conversations, we will listen to each other, not to respond with whether we agree or disagree, but in order to understand each other. So that each of our stories becomes part of our faith journey together.
And we will do this over meals, not microphones. Conversations like this are better over coffee and not a soap box.
While this may be the swirling topic, it will not be the only topic. We will continue to talk about how we cover the five points of our job description as we find it in the Baptismal Covenant. We will continue to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and we will continue to respect the dignity of every human being. Not only is our job description laid out in the Baptismal Covenant, Jesus offers some clarity in today’s Gospel lesson. Just as Jesus sent out the disciples to offer healing and to proclaim the Good News, Jesus sends us out to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, to share our story of where and how Jesus is working in our lives and in the lives of those around us. If we keep our focus on the task of proclaiming the Good News, and loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, our differences will work themselves out in ways that give God the glory.
Our conversations will also be guided by prayer. Let us keep in mind the words of St. Francis of Assisi and the prayer that is attributed to him.
Let us pray:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is
hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where
there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where
there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where
there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to
be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is
in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we
are born to eternal life. Amen. (Prayer attributed to St. Francis)