Sunday, September 25, 2011

Stretching out our arms of love: Where we go next with same-sex blessings

Today's sermon has as its foundation today's gospel lesson, Matthew 21:23-32, and many months of conversations and listening at St. Paul's. I would ask that those who read this here give this prayerful consideration:

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Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

That prayer comes each day at Morning Prayer, and I think it is an appropriate prayer for entering into the topic I want to discuss today. 
This topic is sensitive and personal for many, and about which there is room for honest disagreement. 
The topic is the blessing of same-sex unions. 
At the heart of all that I want to talk with you about today is how Christ embraces each of us, and how each of us reaches forth in love to others. 
Let me begin by saying that you are free to disagree with everything I have to say. You may be tempted to hiss, or you may be tempted to clap. I ask that you do neither. 
You may think that, as a church, we have gone too far, or not far enough. But I would ask that you consider these words as an invitation to continue in this larger conversation with the wider Church as we learn together how to reach forth our hands in love to everyone, especially people who have felt left out. 
The strength of our Anglican-Episcopal tradition is that we can have multiple viewpoints from multiple perspectives and still come to the Holy Table to share in the bread and wine of our Holy Eucharist. 
I pray that will always be so with us. 
I am also mindful that we have number of guests today, including those of you who came for the baptisms of four children we are soon to celebrate. 
Our guests may wonder what the topic of same-sex unions has to do with these baptisms. I promise you, it has everything to do with baptism. 
I would invite our guests to join with us in this wider conversation because your presence today in blessing these children is deeply connected with how all of us live out the promises of our baptism: to love our neighbors as ourselves, to respect the dignity of every human being, and be faithful in the sharing of our prayers and the bread and wine of our Holy Eucharist. 
And baptism is only a start, the first of the sacraments. We have reserved more sacraments for these children as they grow older. How we include them in our sacraments is at the center of this conversation today. 
I need to tell you a little of my own journey and the distance I’ve traveled on the topic of same sex relationships. 
I was brought up in a conservative Episcopalian household, in comfortable middle-class suburbs. 
My parents were married for 56 years before my father died, and they gave me a pretty good model of what marriage could be: A mutually supportive partnership devoted to each other and to the greater good of their family and the community. 
But we did not talk in my family about sex, or sexual orientation, or the possibility that there might be people who are attracted to the same sex and could live in a mutually supportive partnership devoted to each other and to the greater good of their family and the community.

That would never have crossed my mind at age 12, although we had our great Aunt Ruth, a professor at the University of California, who lived with her “friend” Elizabeth for more than 50 years – what was that all about? It never occurred to my sister and me to ask. 
It was not until I became a student at UCLA that I discovered I had gay friends. They opened my eyes to a different world than the one I had grown up in. 
I became a young adult during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and I went through the anguish of losing friends. I witnessed a great deal of compassion for them, and a great deal of prejudice.
I had to face this question: If God created me good, and bestowed upon me the gift of Lori, my life partner, didn’t this same God create people who are attracted to the same sex? And couldn’t this same God also bestow upon them the gift of a partner for life? 
As you know, society-at-large is struggling with this question and so is the Church.

The Church has long seen marriage as between a man and woman, proclaiming that marriage is an expression of how Jesus Christ loves the Church – the church being all of us. All of us, metaphorically speaking, are married to Christ. 
But that metaphor begs the question of whether Christ puts limits on who can experience this expression of love. 
Is Christ’s love limited only to heterosexuals in heterosexual relationships, or does Christ’s love encompass the full goodness in all of humanity? Are gay people included too? 
I came to believe that isn’t God, but people and their cultures, who impose limits on who can be in a committed life-long loving relationship. 
To put this another way: Shouldn’t the ethical issue be how faithfully we love, honor and cherish each other, rather than the sexual orientation of who we are created to love? 
Yet we must also recognize that we are treading on new ground in the Church. This is new, and we must listen respectfully to those voices through the ages that have seen this differently. 
We must also recognize that marriage itself has undergone an enormous transformation in our lifetime. Not that long ago, marriage was primarily a property transaction between families – with a woman as the property. 
Only recently, and primarily only in Western culture, has marriage been seen as a co-equal partnership for the “mutual joy” of a man and woman, as our prayer book terms it. 
Seeing marriage as primarily for the purpose of “mutual joy” is a huge shift in our understanding of marriage, and leads inevitably to the question of whether that mutual joy can only be experienced by people in opposite sex relationships. 
In our Christian tradition, we rightly turn to the Bible as our primary resource for the revelation of God’s guidance. 
However, I will be candid with you: The Bible is of limited help here. There are several forms of marriage in the Bible, including polygamy and rules for marrying your brother’s wife, and how to compensate your neighbor if you have sexual relations with one of his slaves.

The authors of the Bible did not foresee the radical notion of co-equal marriage between men and women, let alone between two people of the same sex. That was not on the charts of the ancient world. 
Frankly, the authors of the Bible did not foresee any co-equal loving relationship between anyone. That was the limit of their view. 
But I don’t believe that is the limit of God’s view. 
We must, I believe, turn to Jesus and his gospel principles of faithfulness and integrity. The cornerstone of all of Jesus’ teachings is love and the responsibilities of love, and something more: Jesus left us with the gift of the Holy Spirit to continue guiding and teaching us. The revelation of God does not end with the Bible but continues with us. 
As you may know, Bishop Shannon Johnston, our bishop in the Diocese of Virginia, has struggled mightily with this issue. He wrote a letter to the diocese last spring explaining how he had come to support the blessing of same-sex unions. Here is what he wrote:
“As I prayed for guidance, an absolutely overwhelming sense–sudden and out-of- the-blue–said ‘MOVE ... NOW.’ … at that point I had total clarity as to what this moment was all about.” 
Bishop Johnston added: 
“Throughout my spiritual life, I have learned that a primary way in which the Holy Spirit works with me is through the unlikely.” 
This was certainly the unlikely for him – and it may be unlikely for some of you. As unlikely and uncomfortable as it may be for some you, I ask that you pray and consider where the Holy Spirit might be leading us together. 
Last spring, we spent a great deal of time in our Sunday forums and Wednesday evening adult education exploring the issues of marriage and same-sex blessings. 
The Vestry also spent many hours in a parallel discussion, and a number of our Vestry members also attended the parish-wide forums. 
We heard not only from gay people who felt excluded by the Church, but also from older couples who had re-married outside the Church years ago because of its stance on divorce. Others expressed support for blessings but discomfort with calling such blessings “marriage.” 
A few people expressed opposition to such blessings based on their opinion that homosexuality is a sin. I believe all were respectfully heard. 
We also heard from people who were initially opposed to same-sex blessings, but then changed their minds primarily because of the stories they heard from their friends and fellow parishioners. 
I was also struck by how many married couples told me they learned things about their own marriages and the meaning of their marriage vows by attending these forums.

At the conclusion of those forums in June, and in consultation with our Vestry, I wrote a letter to Bishop Johnston asking his permission to proceed with same-sex blessings in this parish. 
After several weeks of deliberation, the bishop has replied granting his permission with the condition that he approve the format and language of such ceremonies. I believe that is a fair condition because we are in new territory, and ultimately in the Episcopal Church, all rites and ceremonies are a reflection of the bishop.

We are the fourth parish to be granted such permission in the Diocese of Virginia.
Let me also note that just because the bishop has given a green light, it does not mean such blessings will happen tomorrow. We require all of our pre-marriage couples to undergo many months of preparation and that will also be required of our same-sex couples seeking the blessing of their union. I do not expect there will be a blessing of a same-sex couple before next spring.

I know that not everyone agrees with going in this direction. Yet I also ask, whatever your opinion, that you show your love and respect to all of our couples especially those for whom this is also new territory. 
I promised when I began that I would tell you why this has everything to do with baptism. I know this is a long sermon on an involved topic, so please bear with me for a few more minutes. 
In the gospel lesson from Matthew today, the religious authorities – the intellectuals – are flummoxed by the question: is baptism of God or of humanity? 
And Jesus replies “yes.” 
This will sound obvious, but we can only experience the divine through our human senses – our touch, our hearing, our taste, our sight and our minds. 
We are physical beings, and we use physical outward symbols of water, words, music, prayers, and vows to give us entry – a window, if you will – into the sacred presence that is inside all of us and around us. 
When we baptize people we are saying through these physical signs that God is present and at work in them – and in us. When we are aware of this, we are living sacramentally. 
We are also doing something more – we are welcoming the newly baptized into the “household of God” – the Body of Christ. We are declaring that this household of God needs everyone, of every age and every talent, every persuasion and every orientation.
That is why I am convinced that it is not ours to put artificial limits on the exchanging of vows with the person we love. 
The test is whether those vows are done with faithfulness and integrity, and we can only know that by living into those vows with each other, by living sacramentally together in this community of faith. 
I believe that the Holy Spirit has so much else to teach us about how to live more fully and generously – and sacramentally – as human beings, and we are now embarking on a road together that will bring not just blessings to our couples, but blessings to each and every one of us.

I pray we will always be open to listening and seeing the divine in each other – and that we will bless each other reaching forth with our love. Thank you for listening, and thank you for your prayers.

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