Sunday Sermon

  5 Easter 2019


     My teachers in Church history made sure I understood this time, described in Acts, this period in the life of the Church as a time of great change.  In the lessons today, particularly in Acts and Revelation, we see disciples who are very interested in being faithful interpreting the signs of the times and acting on them.  We know from today’s lesson in Acts that at the beginning of the Church disciples looked for the movement of the Holy Spirit, remembered the sayings of Jesus and found God’s guidance in visions.  Guidance is just that, we never surrender our responsibility as interpreters of words, visions and Spirit sign.  It is the very reason that we get ourselves into trouble when we don’t understand what moves us.  We are always interpreters and there is no way around it.  I believe we grow in understanding through dealing with our mistakes and misunderstandings and their results. The gift that Jesus brought us in forgiveness helps us heal our mistakes when we regularly see and repent, moving on in new life.  

      The outworking of this whole scheme depends on us, our perceptions, our motives, our emotional state, what we think we know, what we want, what we need.  It is a very complex system that is charged with interpreting.  I know this, and so it does not surprise me when we hit a real snag for interpretation.  Sometimes I think these snags say more about us than about the problem.  I spend time every week talking with people about their problems.  I am honored by their trust, carrying their burdens with them in prayer, I remember their faces and their anguish.  I lift them up, asking the Lord to lift them up.  Every week I hear something that causes me to pause and think about my assumptions.  I am a moral theologian and a pastor, so I am always thinking about what we say and what we mean.  

     I was talking to someone about the commitments of the Episcopal Church to its members.  I stated that any member may aspire to any position in the Church and not be barred from it by race, gender or sexual orientation.  I consider that a commitment to our membership. It not a decision that makes me comfortable because part of my job is protecting the Church and its members from harm. I am also aware that Jesus would feel not the slightest need to protect the Church from sinners.  He invited them openly to leave their sins and accept forgiveness.  He also walked day by day with disciples that he knew would betray him, including Judas.  Why would he do that?  One of my responses would be in hopes to influence them to leave their sin and become disciples.  I am willing to deal with my uncertainty about whom we should include in our membership for the sake of my members.  I don’t believe that a position taken is concretely right or wrong.  I believe that inviting and encouraging members to seek their calling with the support of our community is a good that I want to promote.  

     The Episcopal Church meeting in convention felt powerfully moved by the Spirit to open our membership to Gays and Transgendered persons.  Opening our membership in this Church means opening the ranks of priests and bishops as well.  I have often heard it said, even by Episcopalians, that in light of this decision Episcopalians must be less concerned about keeping the commandments than other churches with other commitments.  I strongly object to that.  I have learned to take my time responding when I see that I will need to cover a lot of ground in order to make my point.  I have heard Episcopalians, embarrassed by the commitments of the National Church express their discomfort.  I believe this is a good subject to consider today as the Church in Acts finds the bases for interpretation and begins to interpret for its very life.  Consideration of Jesus’ words and Sacred Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments, the movement of the Holy Spirit and visions all are part of interpreting for the life of the Church. 

      I studied to be a lay pastor in 1978 and have been pastoring continuously for 40 years now.  Many Gay persons are attracted to the beauty of worship in our Church, and love to be a part of it, usually with offerings of art and music but also as leaders and priests.  I became Episcopalian in 1978 in Houston, Texas and have been aware of gay persons actively involved in worship for 40 years, well before the Church made its commitment to them.  At Christ the King in Houston we had a thriving healing ministry.  An exceptionally musically talented gay man with AIDS came to services there about once a month to receive Holy Communion and to be hugged and welcomed.  We accepted his condition and chose to welcome him.  He would come to some of our gatherings when he felt well enough.  He sang, played and danced with us so beautifully.  We could never have afforded to hire him.  We thoroughly enjoyed what he was able to give us when he was able.

     When he relaxed with us, he told us how awful the isolation was that went with the AIDS disease and how much our welcome and our hugs meant to him.  No one wanted to touch him anymore, even his family, because they were afraid.  Our touch brought him back to being human together with us.  That young Gay man taught me about the power of inclusion.  He had an experience of God’s love through the love of the community as he was dying.  I will never forget him.  So, my first response to the commitment of the Church to Gay men and women would be to point to the power of inclusion to teach the love of God to those who need to hear and experience it.

     There are two assumptions there.  That some people have a need of the message of love and that we might have something to offer them.  The Golden Rule wraps right around both assumptions.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Regardless of the need of others I will treat them as I wish to be treated.  I want to be handled with love.  The Golden Rule plays right into the Love Command, “Love God and your neighbor as yourself”.  I consider love to be the most careful sort of treatment.  It also involves so called “tough love” in which we stand for what we believe to be true in difficult circumstances, repenting if we find ourselves mistaken.  

     I grew up in Texas, and there are few places on God’s earth more conservative in every way that matters.  I learned the word “liberal” as a curse word.  In this Church I learned to think of “liberal” as a balancing word.  This Church tries very hard to restore balance in circumstances that involve the exclusion of persons from goods and services given by God to be enjoyed by all.  This includes our official position on immigration to this country.  Membership in a community at every level is a good that means a very great deal to me.  I am a priest because this Church is committed to ministry by those called by God to ministry, regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation.  I thank God for this commitment every day.  We have a long, involved process of determining that calling and testing it.  Sometimes we find we have made a mistake, but sometimes we make glorious choices like the ones that accepted the musician afflicted with AIDS in order to comfort him as he was dying.  We would rather minister to one another and allow time and love to do its work on us, on them.  Because I have chosen to live by the love command, love will change me as much as anyone.  I know this as a fact.

     Excluding others often happens out of fear.  The commitment to include others means that I will get to know them and wrestle with them with whatever concerns them.  I am a pastor and moral theologian by training and have been struggling 40 years with my sin and that of others.  Sin is no stranger and holds little fear for me because I believe in God’s forgiveness for any sin that we in our inventiveness can devise.  We are sinners whom God has washed in the blood of the lamb.  

      Eddie, a good friend, has always known he was Gay and I have always been attracted to men. We regularly complain to one another that we are incapable of choosing a lover who will be good to us.  I am single because my job requires so much of me that I have a little left for family.  My husband did not want to compete with my Church for my attention.  I understood what he wanted but was operating at the peak of my ability for the first time in my life.  I understood both of us and what we wanted.   I chose the life I wanted to live.  God has forgiven me for breaking my promises.  There was nothing cheap about this grace.  I accepted my choice and have been single, living on my own for 13 years now.  It has never been easy.  My experience of my own sin and its forgiveness shows me the importance of being part of a loving community.  It also makes it possible to look at a Gay relationship in which two persons are loving one another and let go of my need to call it profane.  I have no need anymore to name what happens between consenting adults when there are clear signs that love is very much part of the relationship.  1 Corinthians gives us all the signs of love at work that we could ever require.  I look for the signs.  Christians call them the fruit of the Spirit because they are the signs that God is at work in us.  St. Peter pointed to them in the Acts lesson today as a sign that God was at work forgiving even the gentiles.  “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” 

     So, as we face the challenges presented by our sinful natures God sends us signs of God’s presence, guidance in visions and in the words of Jesus who is the Word of God, empowering us to interpret for our very lives.  I do this in the full knowledge that I could very well be mistaken and depending on the love and mercy of God at every turn.  In my reading of the commitments of this Church I find that same spirit and commitment at work.  It is not for everyone, but we are split in many denominations for a reason.  We are working out our salvation in fear and trembling, dependent on God for understanding and forgiveness.  I believe with all my heart that God is good for it, that we will all find our way home.  If that means that I am a “liberal” I accept that because it makes room for us to journey together with other sinners, relying on God’s love to make us whole.

     Living in reliance on God’s love is not an empty phrase for me.  It is not something I accepted without a long struggle.  I took a hard look at Jesus’ commitments, my own, my Church’s.  I am a moral theologian, always, and when I found the Episcopal Church, I found my spiritual home.  We have chosen to number ourselves among sinners to show the love of God.  

     The gospel lesson is set at the Last Supper so that the glorifying God that is going on and central to the passage is glory given to God through the struggle with sin.  Jesus will be killed in that great battle but not defeated because he loved us to the end.  God is love.  What that says to me is that in that great struggle with sin, err to the side of forgiveness as Jesus did.  Rely on God who is love, to carry the burden of right and wrong.  If I meet my brother and sister in good faith it is never cheap grace to love them as Jesus loved us.  It is very expensive.  Each of us chooses to pay the price or not.  On this night in the Gospel lesson Jesus chose to pay the price.  He chose to be numbered among the sinners even though he was without sin.  This Church made the same choice as sinners, meeting in convention.  I am not comfortable with it and don’t expect to be, but it makes good sense to me given the choices that Jesus made.

     We do not all agree with the choices of the National Church.  No one knows that better than me.  This is my 20th year of serving as a priest, most of it in rural WV.  This is my tenth church (I served 4 at a time in Cluster ministry).  I have been proving myself and my commitments for 20 years.  At first, I resented the necessity, but I have decided that if Jesus suffered it then it is likely that so will I.  I don’t immediately fold to the idea of suffering nobly with him.  It is a Roman Catholic notion imagined by men.  I have resisted the idea all my life because so much human suffering has been justified as suffering with Jesus.  I acknowledge that proving myself in a role that I have chosen, and that society has not generally recognized for women is simply de rigueur.  The gospels and letters go to great lengths to explain that Jesus was not a priest and not a rabbi formally trained and yet he was the Word of God.  So many gospel passages involve the demands for signs and wonders to prove his teaching that we could suspect that something is going on.  We are hearing in the readings of wondrous acts that are failing to convince those who demand them. 

     So just before he dies for saving sinners, Jesus offers us his body and blood.  It is all that he has and all that he is.  He offers it to people he knows will betray him, that he suspects will deny him and leave him to die alone.  When he chooses to go to the cross he chooses to be identified with sinners. Then on the cross he continues to forgive as a sign of God’s forgiveness so that we will know forgiveness to be our calling.  He chose to be numbered among sinners and to forgive with his dying breath.  So does this Church, and so do I.

Sermon for 5 Easter 2019 by the Rev. Deborah T. Rankin