Blessing Same Sex Relationships: Doing the Theology

The issue of blessing same sex relationships is once again front and center in the the life of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee.  Bishop Miller has decided not to authorize the use of the Blessing Rite that General Convention approved for trial use in 2012.  His concerns are with the language and structure of the rite itself and with the possibility that offering the sacrament of Marriage to heterosexual couples and a blessing to homosexual couples creates a second class status for some.

The Bishop is also concerned that we have not yet done the theology necessary to the establishment of a new practice, the blessing or marriage of same sex couples, in the church.

The church has been wrestling with this issue for a long time and page upon page has been written in support to, and in opposition to, the acceptance of homosexuality as compatible with the Christian life and whether we should recognize, honor and bless committed, monogamous, covenantal relationships between same sex couples.

As the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee works to develop a “generous pastoral response” to our LGBT brothers and sisters I will be working to highlight and lift up the theological and pastoral work that has already been done.  It is my hope that this will assist us all as we work to discern a way forward together.

As a beginning I am re-posting this sermon from May 13, 2012, just about two months prior to last year’s General Convention and a blog post that I wrote on June 30, just a week prior to convention.

These two posts begin describe the scriptural and theological basis for my assertion that we should be offering the sacrament of marriage to all of God’s children and I hope that they serve as an introduction to the important conversation that we will be engaging in the months to come as the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee.

The Very Rev. Andrew B. Jones

May 13th, 2012

Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Madison, Wisconsin

This sermon is based on the readings for the 6th Sunday of Easter in year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.  You can find those readings here.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning is only a few short lines.  So as we read through it we may be tempted to rush ahead to our Gospel text of the day.  Baptizing Gentiles doesn’t seem like such a big deal to us in this day and age so let’s just jump straight to what Jesus has to say about love!  But if we take another look at the reading from Acts and read it in its context, read it thinking about the themes of the book of Acts, we begin to recognize that this is a passage fraught with conflict: fraught with potential and hope.  It is a passage that demands our attention today.

It says in this passage that the Holy Spirit descended upon a group of people and Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)  Apparently, someone has been saying that the Gentiles should not be baptized.  We get another clues as to what has been happening when we go back a few more lines and read that “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles…” (Acts 10:45) people who they thought were on the “outside.”  The leaders of “The Way, this new faith, this new idea about how to be in relationship with God were in conflict with one another.  Should converts to the faith be required to be circumcised according to the Jewish tradition and Mosaic Law in order to participate in this community?

There was a lot at stake here for Peter and the leaders of the early church.  They are members of a new and growing movement trying to understand how to live out their new faith and their new understanding and to integrate that with their Jewish identity.  At the same time this new movement is under the scrutiny and suspicion of Rome who is very concerned about this movement’s ability to claim people’s allegiance and to subvert their fealty to the Emperor.  This new way of being is also being regarded with great suspicion and hostility by the temple authorities, the Scribes and the Pharisees who, even as we approach the day of the destruction of the Temple and the end of Temple Judaism, are concerned and angered by claims that Jesus is the Messiah.  They are anxious about the competing claims of this new group in their midst.  They are also angry about the ministry and preaching of that radical, liberal malcontent who is claiming that God’s love and grace is open to everyone… even to the Gentiles.  You know… that radical, liberal malcontent Paul!

Paul, whose ministry and teaching is in conflict with the Temple authorities, is also in conflict with Peter and the leaders of the early church.  Paul is saying that people who are converted to the faith from outside of Judaism should not be required to undergo circumcision in order to become members, and Peter and the leaders of the church have been fighting him.  But here, in this moment, Peter meets a group of Gentiles and he learns that he must in fact offer them the sacrament that forms us as the church, and that he must offer that sacrament without asking them to become circumcised.

What evidence do Peter and his group of “circumcised believers” find that causes them to change their minds?  After all, in the seventeenth chapter of Genesis God makes a covenant with Abraham and in that covenant makes a lot of promises to Abraham and to the people of Israel through him:

I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:6-8).

These promises are so deeply imbedded within the people of Israel that even as they come to this new faith they are clinging to them, to the reality and to the understanding that this is not something new, this is not something drastically different.  This is a fulfillment of the faith and the promises that were established in their forefathers, the faith that they have understood and held all of their lives.

In that seventeenth chapter of Genesis God goes on and tells Abraham that his part in this covenant is to circumcise every male among his people.

You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Genesis 17:11).

And a few short lines later God says:

“Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (17:14).

So as Peter and the leaders of the church, in this new and evolving culture and context, with hostility from the synagogue and from Rome confronting them on every side, trying to understand how to be faithful and to live out the teachings of Jesus, are confronted by people who have not been circumcised and yet want to be baptized… they are deeply troubled.

What could make them change their minds?  All along they have been saying “no” to requests like this one.  Something must have shifted their position!   What, short of the very teachings of Jesus himself, could have led them to affect this radical shift in their understanding?

But if you go back and read through the Gospels, through Jesus’ teachings, Jesus doesn’t say anything about circumcision!  We know that he himself was circumcised.  We have that story in our sacred texts.  And we know that Jesus says through his words and actions, over and over again, that the Kingdom of God is for all people.  But Jesus himself does not address the specific issue of circumcision.  He doesn’t ever say whether or not circumcision is a requirement for being a member of his Body, the Church.  So by what evidence do Peter and his colleagues abandon this requirement that is as old as the book of Genesis?

Go back to our passage from the book of Acts and we will see that it was the presence of the Holy Spirit in those who sought the sacrament of Baptism that convinced Peter that he must in fact offer them this blessing.  The people there began to speak in tongues and to extoll God.  Peter and his friends saw this as evidence of the Holy Spirit in these people.  God was already there.  God was already present in these people.  How could they possibly refuse to baptize them?

Now that may seem like a radical thing to do: to overturn all those years of tradition and that sense of scripture based on what seems to be their subjective observation of an event in their lives there in that moment.  But there is scriptural warrant for this kind of interpretation and this kind of change.

In the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus says:

 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:25-31).

Two chapters later in the Gospel of John Jesus says:

 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16.12-13).

Jesus himself says that revelation will be on going, that the holy Spirit will come and will guide us into change, that the Holy Spirit will move us forward, and that God is not done speaking yet.

So when Peter and his colleagues encounter these Gentiles who begin to speak in tongues and to extoll God, and they perceive this to be a manifestation of the fruits of the spirit, they baptize them.

We are reading this morning from the 10th chapter of Acts and really, this is the beginning of the end of this conflict.  The conflict between Paul, with his radical liberal views, and Peter and the circumcised believers has been building for the first ten chapters of the book of Acts, in chapter 15 it comes to a head.  In chapter 15 Paul and Barnabas are talking to other church leaders in Antioch and we read:

“And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. So they were sent on their way by the church…” (Acts 15:2-3).

No small dissension and debate!  They were sent on their way to meet with Peter and the elders of the church.  Seems to me they were going to General Convention.  In the end Paul and Barnabas prevailed.  After a long and serious conversation Peter stood up and said to the rest of the church:

My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us” (Acts 15:7-9).

So just to make sure we understand what we are talking about here… We have the early church struggling to find its way forward, struggling to define its mission and vocation to the rest of the world.  It is doing that in a context that is shifting dramatically and there is opposition from the culture around them, and from those in authority over the nation of Israel.  There is dissension within the church itself.  And then they are confronted with something that seems to go against the scriptures that they hold sacred and which challenges the very core of their beliefs.  These uncircumcised Gentiles have come seeking the sacrament of baptism, the sacrament that binds us one to another and makes us the church.  And in the face of that challenge, the church changes and offers that sacrament because of its faith and trust in the manifestation of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Just to make sure that we understand what we are talking about… we are talking about the sacrament of baptism.  But all week long, as I wrestled with these passages, I was confronted by the reality that we could just as well be talking about the sacrament of marriage.

On Tuesday night this week we gathered with a group of people here in Madison at Saint Luke’s, to talk about the materials that have been presented to General Convention by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.  We looked at the thirty-eight year history of legislation in General Convention around the blessing of same gender unions.  We read through the theological points being offered for consideration by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.  We looked at the materials they have developed to prepare people in same gender unions to have their union blessed.  We looked at the extensive study guide that they have prepared to help congregations and dioceses discern whether or not they are called to participate in the three-year trial use of the liturgy that they have developed.  And we sat together in that space and we read through the liturgy.

Before we began that reading there were people in the room who were uncomfortable with what we were doing.  They were uncomfortable with the idea that we were considering this at all.  There were other people who felt that this is not enough.  “It’s a blessing not a marriage and why can’t we have the same sacrament that everyone else has?”  By the time we finished reading that liturgy everyone in the room was in a very different place…

A very powerful experience, a liturgy that recognizes the covenantal nature of relationships and makes room for the church to offer it’s blessing on two people who have made life long monogamous commitments to one another in the kind of love and joy that is manifested by God’s relationship to us and by God’s relationship to the church.

It was particularly difficult to come home from that meeting on Tuesday night and to learn that the state of North Carolina had passed an amendment to its constitution banning same gender unions, and civil unions, and partnerships: stripping away hospital visitation rights and all sorts of things that married people take for granted.  It was a difficult and strange juxtaposition.

It was even stranger then the next night when I came home from an all day retreat with the Diocesan Executive Council and the Diocesan Strategic Planning Task Force, and heard my son exclaim from his room down the hall that he had just read on Face Book that President Obama had affirmed same sex marriages in a televised interview with a reporter from ABC.  It has been a difficult and tumultuous week.

This issue is not going away.  Our nation is grappling with it.  Our government is grappling with it.  And my brothers and sisters, denominations all across this country are wrestling with this issue right now.

We, and I say that because I believe this is true for most if not all of us,…  I can say without doubt that I know and love many people who love people of the same gender.  And I have perceived holiness of life and the movement of the Holy Spirit in many of those people.  I know many people who are in monogamous, lifelong committed partnerships with people of the same gender and I have seen the fruits of the Spirit and the ends and purposes of marriage served and made manifest in those relationships.  And I believe that we are confronted and convicted by that truth and that the manifestation of the Holy Spirit leading us and teaching us to a new thing.

This summer I am serving as a deputy to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis.  Last April I went to a workshop in Atlanta sponsored by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music as it developed the materials and resources that are now available to all of us in “The Blue Book” so that we can prepare for this conversation at General Convention. I am proud to have been a part of that work.  And I will be voting to allow the three year trial use of this liturgy when we gather at General Convention this summer.

In the time between now and then, and while we are there, I will also be praying.  I will be praying that we in this church and that we in this diocese will be allowed to recognize, and to honor, and to bless the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that we experience in the same gender couples who are members of this parish, who are members of this community, who are members of the Body of Christ, and who are beloved children of God.  I will be praying because I believe, that faced with the evidence of the Spirit’s work among us, we must, must, bless what God is doing in our midst.

Amen.

The Very Rev. Andrew B. Jones

June 30, 2012

Three years ago, the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church passed resolution C056:

“Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 76th General Convention acknowledge the changing circumstances in the United States and in other nations, as legislation authorizing or forbidding marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships for gay and lesbian persons is passed in various civil jurisdictions that call forth a renewed pastoral response from this Church, and for an open process for the consideration of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same gender relationships; and be it further

Resolved, That the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, in consultation with the House of Bishops, collect and develop theological and liturgical resources, and report to the 77th General Convention;”

As part of the process of “collecting and developing” resources the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music held a Church wide Consultation in Atlanta GA in March of 2011.   Each diocese was asked to send one lay and one clergy deputy to participate in a process designed:

“to inform the deputies about the work of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music in response to Resolution 2009-C056;

to engage the deputies in theological reflection in response to the Commission’s work, and to solicit feedback that would inform the Commission and its task groups as they continued their work;

to equip the deputies to report to the rest of their deputations and engage them in ongoing theological reflection about the blessing of same-gender relationships.”

I attended this gathering as the clergy deputy from the Diocese of Milwaukee.

As we were introduced to the process and the materials that we would be using at the consultation It was made very clear to us that we were gathered to engage the work with which the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music had been charged, specifically, the collection and development of theological and liturgical resources to be considered by General Convention 2015 for blessing, not for marrying, same gender couples.

This was a very important distinction. When the church gathered at General Convention in 2009 the church was not in a place to talk about a marriage rite. It was important, if this work was to move forward, that we be clear that the materials being collected and developed were for blessing and not designed to be a marriage rite.

We are now in a very different place.  Resolution 2009-C056 acknowledged that circumstances in the United States and in other nations had changed with regard to same gender couples and in they have continued to change in the three years since.  Public opinion poles for the first time show that a majority of Americans favor or approve of same gender marriage.  The president of the United Sates endorsed same gender marriage in a nationally televised interview.  Many states here in the US and much of Europe have now legalized same gender marriage.  Great Britain is wrestling with legislation that will make it legal for people of the same gender to marry.  And within our own church people are moving, hearts are changing, and the topic of discussion has begun to shift.

I have heard from many people that the theological foundation for the blessing rites that will come before our General Convention in July is inadequate.  I would argue that it is adequate if we are talking about blessing.  I would agree that it is inadequate if we are talking about marriage.   It seems, from much of what I have read, that we are now, in fact, talking about marriage.  I believe that we are finally having the right conversation!

I am always pleased when a couple chooses, for the wedding the passage from the Gospel of Mark that says two people become one flesh.  This reading gives me the opportunity to point out that no one present in the church that day has the power to effect such a marvelous thing.  None of us gathered in the congregation has the ability to make two people one flesh.  Only God can do that.  And so what we are doing is gathering to witness and celebrate something that God has done, is doing, and promises to do forever in the life of the two people who stand before us.

Our Book of Common Prayer says “We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony” (BCP p. 423).  We are not “joining” them.  God has/is/will do the joining.  We are there to “witness and bless.”

The Book of Common Prayer also says that “The union of husband wife is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord” (BCP p. 423).

I believe that the conversation has shifted from blessing to marriage because of our experience of same gender couples whose common life serves and manifest the ends and purposes of marriage.  Many, if not most of us, have experienced same gender couples whose life long commitment can be seen to signify “to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church…” (BCP p. 423).  These relationships are characterized by the mutual joy that the partners find in their relationship and in the help and comfort that they give to one another in prosperity and adversity.   Many of the couples that we are considering here have raised or are raising children and the generativity of their union is manifest in the love and spirit we observe in their children.

I am not saying that the lives of all same gender couples reflect and serve the ends and purposes of marriage but I neither would I make that claim for all marriages between people of different gender.   When we agree to witness and bless the union of two people we do so because we see the ends and purposes of marriage being served in their relationship and union and because we see the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, manifest in their common life.  Often we only see the seeds, or the beginnings, the early growth of these fruits and we witness and bless their union in the faith and hope that those seeds, that early growth will blossom into a new creation in Christ.

I said before that I am pleased when a couple asks me to preach on Mark 10:6-9, 13-16 at their wedding because it allows me to point out that it is God who is effecting their union.  I am pleased because I believe that the implication of this passage of scripture is clear.  If God has/is/will join two people, making them one flesh, if we observe the ends and purposes of marriage being served in their union, and if we see the Fruit of the Spirit manifest in their common life… how can we, the church possibly refuse to bless what God has done?

My experience of same gender couples leads me to believe that we should be having a conversation, not about blessing, but about marriage.  There are many in the church who now share this view.  The Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee asks “is the proper matter for marriage simply two human beings?”  Along with a growing number of people in the church, lay and ordained, I would answer with a resounding “yes!”  But this “yes” leads to another question.

Does this mean that God’s truth has changed or has the proper matter for marriage always been “simply two people”?   It seems to me that the only possible answer to this question is to face the reality that our refusal to witness and bless the unions of our LGBT brothers and sisters for all of these years has been wrong.  For years the church did not recognize, would not witness or bless the union of people of different ethnicities.  Can any of us look back on those days and believe that God was sanctioning our refusal to witness and bless the union of two people because one was black and one was white?   We were wrong!  And in our refusal to acknowledge God’s presence those relationships, in our refusal to say publicly that we saw God manifest in their unions we hurt people and participated in a system of oppression in a way that is not worthy of our prophetic heritage.

If the proper matter for marriage is simply two people then the proper matter for marriage has always been simply two people and we have been participating in a great wrong by refusing to acknowledge God’s action and presence in the unions of faithful members of our church.

In the sixteenth chapter of John Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:12,13).  As Anglicans and as Episcopalians we believe that revelation is ongoing.   To borrow a phrase from our brothers and sister in the UCC, “God is still speaking.”  Three years ago we were not ready to talk about marriage.  Today, with three more years of revelation, of guidance from the Holy Spirit, we are talking about something that we could not have addressed in the same way three years ago.  We have a long way to go.  Changing our canons and our prayer book to allow for the marriage of same gender couples will require two consecutive votes by General Convention.  We might be able pass a resolution this year that will allow for that second vote in 2015 but frankly, and I am only a first time deputy to General Convention, I don’t think that we are going to be able to move that far this year.  So marriage for same gender couples is at least three and maybe six or nine years away.  This begs the question.  Can we as a church continue to deny the presence and work of God in the lives of two people, can we continue to tell them that we do not see God manifest in their relationship and in their common life, can we continue to inflict injury and hurt on people who sit in our pews and kneel beside us at the altar while we wind our way through the legislative process of General Convention and struggle to get the wording “right”?

I believe that the conversation needs to be about marriage and I am glad that we are moving in that direction.  At the same time I wonder how we can decline to bless the relationships of our LGBT brothers and sisters while we work towards a theology of marriage that will allow us to offer the sacrament of holy matrimony to all of God’s children.   Resolution 2009-C056 declared that the changing circumstances in the United States and in other nations call forth a renewed pastoral response from this church.  Would it be a “renewed pastoral response” if, having come this far, we decline to take a step in the right direction?

The conversation of the last three years has moved us forward in an exciting and prophetic way.  I will travel to our General Convention with the faith and hope that our conversation, our journey together, will be advanced by our coming together in the presence of the Holy Spirit.   And I will travel to General Convention with the full and certain knowledge that I will be changed by what I experience there.  But today, given all that I have heard, read, learned and experienced I would vote for a resolution that called for the amendment of the Book of Common Prayer and the Constitution and Canons to allow for marriage between two persons regardless of gender and I would vote to approve the blessing of same gender relationships so that we can begin to publicly affirm what God is doing in our midst; making two people, regardless of their gender, one flesh “for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord,” thereby, “signifying to us to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church…” (BCP p. 423).

Peace,  Andy+

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The Blessing of Same Sex Relationships in the Diocese of Milwaukee: An Update

The Clergy of the Diocese met on Thursday to hear Bishop MIller’s decision on the use of the trial rite for the blessing of same sex relationships that were approved at last summer’s General Convention.

It was a difficult day.  Truth was spoken.   A variety of perspectives, understandings, beliefs, and concerns were aired.  People were honest and passionate.  There were some tears shed.

Bishop MIller has decided not to authorize the blessing rite approved by General Convention.  He feels that the rite itself has serious flaws that make it unworkable.  He also has concerns about the theology of a “blessing” and the possibility that this rite would create an injustice by establishing a “second tier” of relationships within the life of the church.

Prior to last year’s General Convention Bishop MIller posted a theological reflection on his blog arguing that we should not be talking about blessing same sex relationships, but should instead be talking about same sex marriage.  In that paper he outlines his concerns with the Rite and the theology that undergirds it.  You can find that paper here.

I took the rejection of the blessing rites authorized by General Convention very hard.

I have been very involved in the effort to open this sacrament to all of God’s children. I was a member of the task force assembled by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music in Atlanta, I worked hard to share the liturgy and the theology behind it with the poeple of this diocese, and I was a deputy to General Convention last summer when our deputation voted unanimously to approve the rites for trial use. I have engaged in this work with the faces of gay and lesbian friends whose relationships bear the fruit of the spirit and whose relationships serve the ends and purposes of marriage as described in our Book of Common Prayer ever before me. I long to be able to tell them that their church, the church they love, recognizes their relationships as a gift from God, holy, life giving, sacramental – an outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace.

I am grieving for those friends and for the countless poeple I have never met who will experience this decision as a rejection. I am grieving the hurt that our church continues to perpetuate by our failure to give freely to all what has been given to us. And I am grieving my inability to change something that I believe must be changed.

And yet there is some good news coming out of Thursday’s clergy gathering.  In his letter to the Diocese Bishop MIller says”
“…. I am not authorizing the rite from A049 for use in the Diocese of Milwaukee at this time. However, I have arranged with Bishop Jeffrey Lee of the Diocese of Chicago, for clergy and couples from congregations within the Diocese of Milwaukee to go to the Diocese of Chicago to celebrate the rite, as long as they obtain Bishop Lee’s consent to such an action to take place within the bounds of that diocese. Doing so will result in no punitive or negative response whatsoever from me.  Furthermore, I stated my belief that the right to a civil marriage should be available to all people, regardless of sexual orientation and that I would support those seeking to overturn the ban on same-gender marriage in Wisconsin. I also shared that I have begun to permit partnered gay clergy to preside with the diocese, and that I am open to the potential call of any Episcopal cleric in good standing to a position here.

I am also aware that many of our clergy feel the need to offer a generous pastoral liturgical response to gay and lesbian couples. I have agreed to the formation of a task force within this diocese, comprised of people from across the spectrum on this issue, including openly gay and lesbian people living in monogamous relationships, to consider, and propose the same. At the end of the process, however, as the one given canonical authority to order the liturgical life of the diocese, the decision about the authorization of such a rite rests with me. In our polity, there can be no other way.”

You can find the full text of Bishop MIller’s letter here.

While these concessions do not represent the full and unconditional inclusion of Gay and Lesbian people in the life of our Diocese they do represent change and movement in the right direction.  Opening the doors of the Diocese of Milwaukee to Gay and Lesbian Clergy, arranging for clergy resident in this diocese to preside using the approved blessing rites an adjacent diocese, and the formation of a task force to propose a way to make a “generous pastoral response” to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and to the parishes and clergy who love them, represent significant change in the Diocese of Milwaukee.  The Spirit is moving and there is light on the horizon.

I am hoping to serve on the task force that will work to develop a “generous pastoral response” that will meet the Bishop’s approval.  And I pledge to you that I will continue to work towards full inclusion of all of God’s children in the life, ministry and sacraments of the church, continuing to proclaim that God’s love for us knows no boundaries because in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, (there is no longer LGBTQ or straight); for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”  (Galatians 3:28).

Please, if this conversation has raised questions or concerns for you, do not hesitate to be in touch with me.  I am always available to listen, to talk, to pray, and to explore the ways that t holy Spirit is calling us forward to a more perfect understanding of God’s dream and vision for creation.  That is the vocation to which we The Body of Christ are called and it is my joy and my privilege to do that work with you.

Peace,
Andy+

Not To Be Served But To Serve

It was one of those moments that preachers hope for; that flash of insight, the sudden revelation, the line that connects all of the dots that have been dancing around in your head.  And it was one of those moments that preachers dread.  It came at 11:00 on a Saturday night as I was struggling with a sinus infection and trying to fall asleep.  You look for these moments on Thursday morning, when there is still plenty of time to pull it all together. Saturday night is really pushing it.

I record my sermons now so that I can transcribe them and post them to my blog, so I know that I didn’t do a great job of incorporating this last minute insight into the sermons that I preached this past Sunday.  It wasn’t until after I was home from the doctor on Monday, antibiotics on board and neti pot in hand, that I felt like I was doing this justice.  So, with apologies to all of you who sat through the drafting process on Sunday, here is the Sermon that I would have liked to have preached!

This Sermon is based on the Gospel reading for Proper 24 in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find that text here.

All week long I have been wrestling with James, John and the rest of the disciples.  How could they be so blind?  How can they not see?  Why don’t they understand what Jesus is saying to them?  This is, after all, the third time that he has told them that he was going to be handed over to the authorities, crucified, die, and on the third day rise again.  How many times does he have to say it before they catch on?  What does he have to do to make them see?

It’s hard to watch.  Here he is telling them who he really is and what is going to happen to him and what happens?  James and John come to him, like two little children, and try to trick him into making them a promise.  “Teacher, we want to you to do whatever we ask of you.”  It seems so surreal!  Now granted, we have a little bit of an advantage over James and John.  We know the end of the story.  We know that when Jesus asks if they can rink from the same cup as him he is talking about his suffering on the cross.  And we know that the baptism that he is referring to is his passing through death into life.  The Disciples haven’t experienced Jesus’ resurrection, his ongoing presence among us but Jesus has told them three times.  Shouldn’t they be getting the idea by now?

All week long I wrestled with this dimwitted bunch of followers, trying to figure out how to make their story, their lack of understanding, their lack of, ok…  if we want to cut them a little slack… their lack of experience and historical perspective, with regard to Jesus’ vocation and mission relevant to us today?  We know how the story ends.  In fact, Mark told us right at the very beginning of his Gospel who Jesus is, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  There’s the rub.  The preacher is supposed to help us all understand how this story about people and events some two thousand years ago is actually about us, is actually our story?   How does the story of the Disciples lack of understanding become our story?  It was 11:00 on Saturday night when it finally hit me.  I had been focusing on the wrong part of the story.  I was focusing on the set up and not the punch line.

The first time that Jesus tells the Disciples that he is going to die Peter begins to rebuke him and Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan.  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  The second time that he tells them that he is going to die the Disciples get into an argument on the road about which of them is the greatest.  Now that he is told them for a third time James and John come and ask to be seated at his right and left hand in his “glory!”  I don’t think that the Disciples were stupid.  I think that they were afraid!

They had their minds on “human things…” the things of the flesh, this stuff that we are made of, this stuff that wants its own way, that is always looking out for itself first, this stuff that, even when we are operating out of the best of intentions wants to be recognized, affirmed, and held up.  James, John and the rest of the Disciples weren’t stupid.  They heard what Jesus was saying and it frightened them.  They were looking for an earthly “glory,” an earthly kingdom where their positions would accrue some significant benefits.   That’s not what Jesus was offering them.  Jesus has told them three times that he is going to suffer at the hands of that earthly kingdom, that he is going to die on a cross, and that he is going to be raised again.  In some ways this passage is a reiteration of that theme.  As it turns out, that reiteration of the theme isn’t the point.  It is the set up.  The real point, the punch line is the last line of today’s Gospel:  “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

A servant?  Slave of all?  Following in Jesus’ footsteps, participating in his kingdom means serving others and not being served?  James, John and the rest of the Disciples found what Jesus was saying to be so abhorrent that they were trying to remake the kingdom in their image.  They were trying to shift it back to the model that they were familiar with.  They would have preferred a kingdom of “glory” where their place in the hierarchy assured them of status, rank, privilege and power.  They weren’t stupid.  They were fighting against the model that Jesus was proclaiming, and they were fighting with all they were worth.

I told you that all of this started to unfold in my head at 11:00 on Saturday night.  I am going to admit to you now that this isn’t the first time that this has happened to me.  I won’t say how exactly how many times it has happened, but it has happened more than once.  Usually I am pretty good at synthesizing the new idea, incorporating the inspiration, weaving in sudden revelation in a way that allows me to go back to sleep.  That wasn’t what happened this time.  The idea that the Disciples were trying to remake the Kingdom of God into an earthly kingdom was troubling enough that it kept me awake for most of the night.

We tell these stories, we stand here in church on Sunday mornings and we “proclaim” the Word of God as our own story. We tell these stories because they help us to know and understand the God who creates, redeems, and sustains us.  We also tell these stories because they reveal deep truths about who we are, about the people God created us to be, and about the ways that we have fallen short of God’s dream for us.  So this story about James and John is a story about us.  This story of the Disciples wanting something other than what Jesus was offering is about us.  This story of the Disciples trying to twist God’s vision for their lives into something they wanted…  tells us something about ourselves.  This story is our story and we tell it to remind ourselves that we are called to sacrificial living and that we are called not to be served but to serve.

I may get myself into hot water here, it wouldn’t be the first time, but I found this to be very troubling and with your permission I am going to trouble you.

I wonder what Jesus would say about the ways that we, his Disciples, have built and structured his church?  I wonder what he would say about the ways we fight with one another over who is in and who is out.  I wonder what he would say about our need to manage, control, and “protect” the gifts that he has given us.

I am troubled by the possibility that we have created the church to our own ends in an effort not to serve but to be served.

We need some structure.  We need some order.  We need a framework that will allow us to explore our scripture, our tradition and our experience of God and the world.  We need a common language and some common understanding about the ways that we will be in relationship to and with one another.

But when that structure, order, framework and language cease to be our “means” and becomes our “end,” when we use it as an excuse to point at people and treat them as “other…” excluding them from full inclusion and participation in the church and its sacraments, this Gospel passage calls us out and asks us who is being served?  Are we serving in the way that Christ calls us to serve, becoming the servant and slave of all, or are we seeking to preserve our position, to secure at place at Jesus’ right and left hand so that we might be seen in the light of his glory?

This summer at General Convention, at the first gathering of the movement called The Acts 8 Moment, we were asked to finish the phrase, “I dream of a church…”  I sat and listened to people stand at the microphone and respond to that prompt but couldn’t quite get find the words… or maybe it was the courage that I couldn’t find, to express what I was thinking.  I had it the next morning though…

I dream of a church where we have the courage to give ourselves away.

I dream of a church that has the courage to stop being defensive, to stop trying to protect God as if God were somehow vulnerable and at risk of becoming dirty by association with some of us.  I dream of a church that is ready to offer itself on the cross, a ransom for many and to shine God’s light and love into the world.  I dream of a church where we can stop looking for reasons and ways to keep people out and begin to look earnestly for ways to fling wide the doors and bring them in.

I dream of a church that seeks not to be served but to serve.

Amen.

General Convention Day 7

July 10, 2012

So much to say… So little time…

The only way to deal with everything that happened at the 77th General Convention today is to take them chronologically from the opening of the legislative session this morning.

The first big items to hit the floor today were resolutions D008 and B005, responding to the Anglican Covenant.

It is amazing to me how invested we all are in what is happening here.  When I recognized that these resolutions were before us I got a real adrenaline rush.  I texted Dorota Pruski, the Seminarian from our Diocese who has been following these resolutions through committee to make sure that she was in the house.  She responded that she was in the visitor’s gallery behind us and that she was “nervous.”  So was I!  The first couple of speakers made it clear how critical these resolutions are.

The Rev. Tobias Haller, Deputy from the Diocese of New York, told us that the Continuing Indaba process, is the lifeblood and breath of the Anglican Communion. According the Anglican Communion web site “Continuing Indaba a biblically-based and mission-focused project designed to develop and intensify relationships within the Anglican Communion by drawing on cultural models of consensus building for mutual creative action.”   Deputy Cole from the Diocese of Colorado said, “We don’t need a piece of paper to be in relationship with one another.  We need to be in relationship with one another and the Continuing Indaba Process puts us in relationship.”  Affirming our commitment to the Anglican Communion keeps us part of the conversation and keeps us in relationship with one another.

The first resolution, D008 Affirm Anglican Communion Participation, passed pretty easily.  Resolution B005 Ongoing Commitment to the Anglican Covenant Process was going to be a different story.  There were articles published last night that decried this resolution as contrary to the will of the House.  People had overwhelmingly expressed a desire to vote with a resounding “no” on the Anglican Covenant.  This resolution called for us to not vote on adopting the covenant at all.

In the end one of the members of the Committee that produced the resolution said it perfectly.  “This resolution is not about our wants but about the needs of the church.  What we need is a way to be in dialog, not to satisfy our need for winners and losers.”  He went on to say “There are many people who would like to say ‘no’ to the Covenant, and to say it with a vivid hand gesture.  But that would not be helpful.  That is not what we need.”  There was no pressure on us to vote one way or the other.  With so many of our partners in the Anglican Communion having rejected the Covenant it is not going to be a decisive factor in the life of the Anglican Communion anyway.   Why respond to our Communion Partners with a vivid hand gesture when there is so little at stake for us?

Dorota and I breathed a sigh of relief and shared our pride in our church when Resolution D008 passed!

Episcopal News Service article on the Anglican Covenant

Father Jonathan Grieser on the General Convention and the Anglican Covenant

Dorota Pruski writes about the Resolutions regarding the Anglican Covenant

Next up…  The election of the next President of the House of Deputies!

Coming into convention there were two clear candidates.  Martha Alexander, a Trustee of the Church Pension Fund and N.C. states legislator, and The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, former Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Ohio, staff member of the church wellness group Credo, and former member of the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council.  Both are well established members of the larger church and would seem to have all of the credentials necessary for leading the House of Deputies.

In the days since The Acts 8 Movement first broke here at General Convention another candidate came to the fore.  The Rev. Canon Frank Logue of the Diocese of Georgia accepted calls for his nomination and announced his willingness to stand for election just a few days ago.

In the end The Rev. Gail Jennings won the election but I was struck by the numbers that were reported to us.  Gail Jennings received 426 votes.  Martha Alexander received 140.  Frank Logue received 266!  In my mind the number of votes cast for a last minute candidate who “ran” on a platform of change says a lot about the mind of the church and the reality that the status quo is no longer acceptable!

ENS article on the Election of the President of the Hose of Deputies

After lunch we did something that I have been wishing for since the second day of convention.  Last night my good friend the Rev. Gary Manning of Trinity Wauwatosa, who is here working for Living Compass in the Exhibition Hall, asked me what I found the most exciting about convention.  I told him that I was surprised how little interaction the House of Deputies has with the House of Bishops.  It is almost like we are locked in parallel processes and we only communicate with one another through official messages, duly reported and logged in our convention binders.  I told Gary that I wished we could have more dialog.

Well this afternoon the Bishops all came into the House of Deputies and sat with us in plenary session for a presentation of the budget by Program, Budget and Finance.  Before the legislative session resumed there were photo ops, people milling around and chatting, greeting one another, looking for people to take the camera and record the moment.  It was wonderful.  At the conclusion of the presentation of the budget the Presiding Bishop said that she hope we would find a way to bring the two houses together more often at future conventions.  And then, echoing the call of the Acts 8 Moment she asked us, “What is it that you dream for this church in the coming years and what gift or art do you have to offer to that dream?”  It was another in a long list of wonderful moments at General Convention!

So what about the budget?  There was a power point presentation.  There was a narrative description.  And there was a handout, 15 pages long.  I can give you some basic facts and numbers and then, since I haven’t had a moment to look closely at the budget myself, I will give you some links to other people’s thoughts and commentary.

The “asking” of each diocese for the coming triennium is still 19%

Between the Diocesan Asking and the draw from our endowments (a total of 5.8%), and some rental income from the property at 815 we will generate $111,500,000.

The budget, as presented has a surplus of $30,000.

The budget uses the model offered by the Presiding Bishop and is built around the five marks of mission.

Money has been restored for Lifelong Christian Formation and for the Episcopal Youth Event.

There is money for “block grants” to fund Mission Enterprise Zones and Church Planting.

There is a one time allocation of funds to establish a Development Office.

The General Board of Examining Chaplains (the folks who write, manage, and grade the General Ordination Exams) has been funded as has The College of Bishops (training and formation for newly elected Bishops).

There is $200,000 in the budget for “restructuring the church.”

The budget also imposes some cuts in staff at the Church Office.  The Budget requires the elimination of 12 staff positions, or 10.75 fte.

Here is the ENS article on the budget.

Here is Tom Ferguson’s (the Crusty Old Dean’s) commentary

I will write more about the implications of the budget as we have a chance to study it together.

Next up… Resolution C095 Structural Reform.

With all of the talk about change…

With at least 51 resolutions offering ideas and process…

With about 840 deputies on the floor of the House of Deputies…

How were we going to make sense of this?

We did it by voting unanimously!

After a period of discussion we sat quietly as the President of the House of Deputies said, “All in favor say ‘Yes.’”  There was a resounding response.

We waited for the other shoe to drop.  “All opposed say ‘no.’”

Silence!  The President’s eyebrows, visible on the “jumbo tron” went up.  She looked around the room.  A smile began to cross her face and you could feel the energy grow!  She stood up, raised her hands inviting all of us to stand and then we clapped, cheered, hugged, and sang!

The Committee on structure had written new words to the hymn Come thou font of every blessing.  The final repeating lines of each stanza were, “Sing a new church into being, one in faith and love and grace.”  I am getting goose bumps even now!  The committee on structure promised to publish the rest of the words and I will send them along as soon as I have them.  There are some videos on face book but the audio quality isn’t good enough to catch all of the words.  I hope that we got some good video footage because I would love to give you a sense of the Spirit that filled the house at this magical moment!

Here is some commentary on the resolution on structure:

Episcopal News Service on restructure

Tom Ferguson on restructure

Earlier in the day we had passed a resolution setting a time certain to begin work on Resolution A049 Authorization to Bless Same Gender Relationships.  We finished the work on the resolution on structure at 4:48.  We took up A049 at 5:00.  Right on schedule!

I think that the arguments on both sides of this issue have been well rehearsed.  We have been working this conversation pretty intensely in the last several months and I wrote about the debate in the House of Bishops yesterday.  But there was one new wrinkle today and it was of our own making.  If the Anglican Communion is so important to us, if the Continuing Indaba process is so crucial, if we really want to stay at the table, why would we approve this resolution and stir the pot all over again?  Earlier today we passed D008 and B005 telling our brothers and sisters around the world that we value them and want to stay at the table, in conversation, in communion.  Why then would we take this action and risk rupturing those relationships?

You can see that this is a good question and it makes you stop and think.  Are we being hypocritical if we authorize the use of these blessing rites?  I think that the key to this question is what is at stake for us as we address both the covenant and the blessing rites.

I stated earlier that there was little at stake for us in a vote on the Anglican Covenant.  So many of the other Provinces of the Anglican Communion, including the Church of England where it “originated” have already rejected it that our vote doesn’t really matter.  The Covenant not be a major factor in the life of the Anglican Communion whether we vote yes or no.  It would make a difference to us at home if we voted yes.  There are parts of the covenant that would likely force us to change our polity.  But choosing not to vote and to affirm our commitment to the communion and to the Continuing Idaba process leaves us in a place to be in conversation.

I believe that there is a lot at stake for us in our decisions around the blessing of same-gender relationships.  As I have said before I believe that the Holy Spirit is leading us into all truth.  Not a new truth but a deeper and better understanding of the truth that was revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  The incarnational evidence that we have experienced in the lives and partnerships of the LGBT people in our midst has called us to reexamine our understanding of scripture and we have seen that our tradition, our interpretation of our holy texts has been wrong.  There is a lot at stake here!

We have been working these issues since General Convention since 1976.  Our brothers and sisters in Christ, right here in our churches, in our pews, kneeling beside as at the rail… they have been waiting, longing, hurting for this moment.  In our refusal to acknowledge God’s light in their lives and in their unions with one another we have done them unspeakable harm.  In forcing people to hide the truth about themselves, in shaming them about the way that they are made, in asking them to wait until we get it right and it is comfortable for us to acknowledge the manifestation of God that we see in them we have wounded one another and we have wounded ourselves in a way that I believe is indefensible.  There is a lot at stake here!

So what do we say to our brothers and sisters around the world?  What have we said to them today?

I believe that we have told them that they are deeply important to us.  We have told them we believe that we are diminished when we are alienated one from another and that we want to be at the table in communion with them.  I believe that we have also told them that our LGBT brothers and sisters are important to us as well, that when one of us is diminished we are all diminished and that we are working very hard to love one another in the ways that God loves us.  In a world that seems increasingly hostile to any colors but black and white we have offered, in love, the best we know how, a response that is nuanced, honest, and grounded in love.

The discussion on the floor of the house was difficult.  When you have 840 people wanting to be heard, working through something this sensitive and charged, it is difficult to stay focused and calm.  Dorota and I were texting back and forth, wishing that we could move to a calmer place as we worked through the legislative wrangling in the closing minutes of debate.  Then one of my seminary classmates, The Rev. Phil Dinwiddie, Deputy from the Diocese of Michigan, rose for a Point of Personal Privilege.  “Madam President, is it too soon to pray?”

The laughter that filled the room broke the tension.  The President called the chaplain to the podium and we all took a moment to remind ourselves why we were there.  Then a vote by orders was conducted.  A few more housekeeping items were discharged, and we prayed again.  President Anderson then announced the results of the vote for resolution A049 and adjourned the house.

In the Lay order the resolution passed by 78%.  In the Clergy order it passed by 76%.

ENS article on Blessings

The Episcopal Cafe on Blessings

Father Jonathan Grieser on Blessings

It has been a long day!

Here are some reflections from other members of our deputation

Peace, Andy+