20 May 2007

A sermon for Anglican Communion Sunday

I was the preacher today at St. Matthew's, Westminster in London. Here's what I said:

In the name of God: Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

About three months ago, I was in Tanzania as one of the hangers-on at the Primates' Meeting in Dar es Salaam. I was there as a blogger and as a witness to the progressive voice within the Anglican Communion. I had opportunities to speak with several primates, and I spent lots of time talking with reporters, helping them understand the Byzantine world of Anglican polity and subtle discourse.

I also had occasion to speak with some ordinary Tanzanian church-goers. One afternoon, I had a long conversation with a Tanzanian man. We talked about all sorts of things. After we had spent some time together, getting to know one another a bit, I asked him about his views on the Anglican Communion. We are told, in America, that African Christians must take a hard line on moral issues because of the intense competition with Islam for converts. I asked him if he thought that being in communion with the liberal American church was a local problem in Tanzania.

He began his answer by telling me that he agreed with Peter Akinola with respect to human sexuality. But he went on to say that he didn't think that what happens in America is of great concern to those to come to church in Tanzania. He said, "People who come to church here want to praise God. They want to pray to God. They want to give thanks to God. They want to know God. They are concerned with their salvation, and they do not worry about what the American church teaches." He went on: "I hope that your country's practices do not happen here, but it does not trouble us too much if they happen there."

I asked him if the Anglican Communion should break apart over this issue, because Muslims might not join a church in Tanzania that is linked with a liberal American church. "No," the man said, "that is not the greatest concern. However, we will lose all credibility with Muslims if we divide on this issue. If we cannot stay together as one communion, we will not be able to talk with them about one God, one Jesus, and one church."

I think that captures a bit of the Gospel that we hear today. Jesus prays that a sacred unity, a mystical communion, be manifest in his disciples.
The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
This is not the unity of common views. This is not the love of those whom we happen to like. This is not communion with others in proportion to our approval of them. No, this is God's love. This is God's desire that all who follow Jesus as Savior might be bound together by a mystical connection that is greater than what we humans could accomplish on our own.

By the time the Fourth Gospel was written, the church was an established entity. We know from Paul's letters that there had been many, many disagreements over vitally important issues. And, yet, the evangelist could write these words, this great prayer for unity among followers of Jesus, even in the face of dissension and disagreement. The evangelist knew that the Body of Christ is stronger than those things that sometimes divide us.

I don't often preach about the situation we face in the Anglican Communion today. Frankly, I think it's not relevant to what happens in most churches on most days. It is the preacher's task to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, not to fan the flames of a crisis that is too often stirred by clergy. Our gospel today, however, seems to invite a consideration of unity and of the nature of God's love. Of course, today is also Anglican Communion Sunday.

And there is another reason I might say a word or two about what's happening now. Father Chester asked me to preach here today because I'm in England this weekend doing some work with InclusiveChurch and hoping to find ways to witness to God's hope for unity in the Anglican Communion. Your parish has a special vocation of relationship with the Episcopal Church and a commitment to InclusiveChurch, so perhaps a few thoughts from an American perspective are useful.

We have had many opportunities to reflect on the nature of communion, and of the Anglican Communion, because of recent events. You hear people say that this whole crisis, such as it is, has been driven solely by US innovation or even heresy. And you hear others say that the problem is intransigent conservatives, who refuse to be open to the Holy Spirit at work today. But of course, the problem is more complicated than that. If it were so simple, we'd have figured it out by now. Perhaps I could make a few observations.

Money is clearly a tremendous factor in all this. It may well be American money funding the communion that has kept us from being kicked out of the Communion. And it is also American money, much of it from the Institute of Religion and Democracy, that is funding a good deal of the conservative activity designed to tear apart the Communion and the Episcopal Church.

For both sides, it is worth noting that Episcopal Church polity is neither the cause nor the solution. We Americans must realize that not every province in the Communion has democracy and some transparency, and we must stop saying in a somewhat condescending way to the rest of the world, "You just don't understand our polity. We followed our own rules with the consecration of Gene Robinson, and there's nothing we can do at present to change our position." Instead, we might do well to gain some appreciation for what America and the Episcopal Church look like from across the world.

It would also, I think, be helpful if we all showed a good deal more respect for those with whom we differ. It is not helpful when African bishops enter the US to create parallel jurisdictions in the church, and it is not helpful when American bishops declare that they are coming to the Lambeth Conference whether or not they are invited.

The extent to which we say, "either you are with us, or you are against us" is the extent to which we will keep God out of all this. President George Bush famously uttered this cowboy line after the September 11 attacks, and thus began a desolate chapter in American foreign policy. This, I fear, is a major factor in our ecclesial difficulties. But I might also observe that you hear a very similar message coming from the left and from the right in our church struggles. Too many Americans are ready to jettison the Anglican Communion and our global mission, because "they" are too slow. Too many others are willing to expel the American church, because "they" have gone too far. My own view is that expulsion is not our role and not our right. Communion belongs to God, and St. Paul eloquently reminds us that we Christians cannot say to any other Christian, "I have no need of you."

The Communion is costly. To love in God's love is costly. All of us must be prepared to yield our own desires to the greater purposes of God's love and of church unity.

It's all well and good to say that, but how do we do it? Well, at the risk of sounding hopelessly naïve, I think we might begin in prayer and in worship. Sharing in this service, this time together, when Christ's body is manifest in bread and in this gathering reminds us of who we are, who God is, and of our bond together in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Today we are still basking in the glow of Easter glory. And yet we are aware, having just celebrated the Ascension, that Jesus has for a time returned to God, entrusting us with ministry here in this earthly pilgrimage. As St. Luke tells us, just before Jesus ascended in glory, he blessed his disciples. Others have noted that in the very act of trusting his disciples to carry on, there is a blessing. If you recall a time when you have been trusted with great responsibility, you will understand how Jesus doubly blessed his disciples on that day – first by his words, and second by his trust that they would minister God's love to the world. Perhaps if we could give thanks for this responsibility, for this trust, for this blessing, we would be better ministers.

The prayer of Jesus that we hear today is one that we would all do well to pray fervently. May we all be one, and may God's love dwell in us. It sounds so simple, and it is ironic to me that the one thing Jesus really asked us to do was to love God and one another, and we cannot seem to get that one thing right. We all spend our time finding reasons to exclude people, to fear others, and to do anything but practice radical, sacrificial, abundant love.

What would our world be like if we began with this question: how can I love others as God loves me? What would our church be like if we asked this question relentlessly: how can we love one another as God loves us?

I have one example of how our church could look. Recently I heard the rector of a large parish in southern California talk about a remarkable event in her parish. It seems that they had a lengthy conversation about whether or not they would permit the blessing of same-sex relationships within the church. After a sustained dialogue, the consensus was that these services could take place. At the first same-sex blessing, the rector was surprised to see one of her parishioners present, for this man was at the time very active in a national conservative group in the Episcopal Church. She said, "I'm surprised to see you here. I didn't think you approved of what we're doing." He replied, "I don't approve of this service, but these two men are my friends, and we are part of a community together. This day is important to them, and I love them. Why wouldn't I be here?"

My friends, that is a kind of church we want -- a church where people may not agree, but where they can find ways to love one another -- a place where God's love is shown forth.

In the Revelation to St. John of Patmos, we encounter a mystical vision of a world that is complete in God, ready to receive the presence of Jesus Christ.
"It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star."
The Spirit and the bride say, "Come."
And let everyone who hears say, "Come."
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon."

St. John speaks of the consummation of history, but I think this might apply well to a more imminent coming of Jesus. If we invite him, we can receive Jesus Christ into our hearts, into our lives. In the sacraments, and in our mundane lives, we can see Jesus revealed, whether in bread or in the face of a stranger.

This invitation is not for some, it is not for a chosen view. Hear the vision: "Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift." Every minute we spend on discord and division within the church is a moment we could be inviting God into our own lives and offering God's love to a world that is thirsty for hope, for meaning, and for reconciliation.

I do not imagine that the wounds in the Anglican Communion will be easily healed. I do imagine that the healing will not begin until we place God's love at the center of our common life, until we focus on finding ways to enact God's love. If we believe that reconciliation is possible -- and I hope all Christians profess this -- then we must hope and pray that Peter Akinola and Gene Robinson and everyone else remain in conversation and practice listening. When we begin to shut people out of our conversation, for whatever reason, we have yielded to the notion that our fears are stronger than our hope for God's love in our midst.

As we continue this service, let us receive Jesus Christ. Let us receive Jesus Christ this day not only in the sacrament of Holy Communion, but in our hearts and minds and lives. Bishop Frank Weston had it right. After this feast at the Holy Table, we should go out into the "highways and the hedges" looking for Jesus in every face, in every life. By God's grace, we can love one another. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can become a church that is truly an icon of the kingdom of God, a kingdom built on a foundation of radical, sacrificial, and abundant love.
"Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen."

© 2007 Scott A. Gunn

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