A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 24, 2016 (Epiphany 3, Year C)
If you’ve ever applied for a job and read the accompanying position description you know that most employers want…everything. They require a dizzying array of skills that no single person can possibly have. Now, most jobs require some general competence or technical skill that you either have or you don’t. I’d never get hired as, say, a carpenter — since the worst grade I ever got in my entire life was in 6th grade shop class — or a dance instructor — since the last time I danced was at my wedding.
But in addition to specific skills, many jobs put seemingly unrealistic expectations on candidates. They want a detail oriented visionary; a diligent and painstaking researcher who is also an outgoing people person; someone young and energetic but with 40 years experience.
A church succeeds because of the talents and skills of many, not just the clergy or staff, but everybody who brings different gifts and experiences and opinions which, when offered up to the glory of God, strengthen and enrich the Body of Christ that is the church.
I mean, if we were all carpenters, we might have the most beautiful pews in the world, exquisite hand-crafted kitchen cabinets, a bathroom with a dazzling tongue and groove toilet paper dispenser, but our financial records might be in disarray. Or if we were all bankers, we might have beautifully organized spreadsheets outlining a diverse portfolio of investments but the altar flowers might be a disaster. Of course some carpenters are also wizards with a spreadsheet and some bankers can arrange flowers like Martha Stewart. But the point is, there are a variety of gifts and skills needed for a community to thrive. Collectively we have them but individually we do not. This is the joy of being part of a community; we are stronger together than we are as isolated individuals.
And it’s what St. Paul is driving at in his First Letter to the Corinthians; this “body language” discourse in which he memorably tells us that, just as the body is one yet has many members, so it is that we are collectively the Body of Christ. The idea is to recognize and enable the gifts in one another and then offer them all to the glory of God through the mission and ministry of the church.
As is often the case with Paul’s letters, he was writing to an early Christian community in Corinth that was getting it wrong. The epistles weren’t written simply to say “hello;” Paul didn’t write his letters just to “check in” or tell people that the weather was beautiful in Thessalonika. He was usually writing to address a specific issue that had come up in the community. In this case, the Corinthians were using their spiritual gifts to “compete” with one another. To lift themselves up as individuals rather than the community as a whole. A practice that had led to the divisions which Paul sought to address.
It’s also helpful to remember that Paul points us to unity not uniformity. And there’s a big difference here. We can be as one in the Spirit yet disagree. That’s one of the things I love most about the Episcopal Church and the Anglican theological tradition. That while we hold core beliefs that bind us together, there is room to debate and disagree and that this is not discouraged but rather embraced as it allows us to rejoice in the diversity of our differences.
Nothing has been a better reminder of this than the recent actions taken by leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion. You may have seen some of the headlines about the Episcopal Church that made the rounds last week. “Anglican Leaders Suspend Episcopal Church” or variations on the theme. It’s not everyday that we make CNN or The New York Times, so this tends to stand out. The problem is that the headlines weren’t just misleading, they were wrong. The Episcopal Church wasn’t “suspended” — the leaders of the member churches don’t have that authority and nothing will change here at St. John’s or in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.
But, based on the actions of last’s year’s General Convention that approved same sex marriage rites, we were asked not to participate in several global ecclesiastical meetings for the next three years. Which may not sound like much of a consequence. I mean, only in the church would not being allowed to attend church meetings be seen as some sort of punishment. But, while not a suspension, it was an attempt to censure us for acting in a way that is not accepted by the majority of Anglican bishops.
Of course relationship is much more nuanced than any headline can convey. So here’s the deal. The worldwide Anglican Communion is made up of 38 autonomous provinces, each headed by an archbishop or, in the case of our own Episcopal Church, what we call the Presiding Bishop. They gathered in Canterbury, England, the titular seat of the Church of England, the tradition out of which the member churches derive. While some of the churches agree with us, notably the Church in Canada and Australia, many of the other church leaders, especially those from parts of Africa and Asia, oppose the action the Episcopal Church took. Hence the unfortunate headlines.
Our own Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, like any good leader of a Christian community, brings us back again and again to the heart of the gospel. In light of the actions and accusations of the bishops of the global south he said, “ Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on social theory or capitulation to the ways of culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”
In other words, we, along with the rest of the Anglican Communion, are seeking to follow Jesus in the most faithful way we know how. And I hope we will continue to walk with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ even when we disagree. But it’s complicated. Interwoven into the relationship between and among members of the Anglican Communion are contextual and cultural differences. There remains the heavy weight of colonialism and the hubris of the modern Western world. There are differing world views based upon the interpretation of Scripture and the context in which one’s faith is lived out.
Now, in the end I do think the Episcopal Church’s stance will be seen as prophetic. Love will win. Though probably not in my own lifetime and perhaps not even in the next generation. But in the meantime we will stay in relationship with our Anglican brothers and sisters because we are poorer without them, just as they are poorer without us. We need all of our body parts, as Paul might put it, in order to fully be the Body of Christ that is the holy Church of God in the world. Because relationship matters; the Anglican Communion matters; and I believe we have a responsibility to keep speaking up for the dignity of all human beings, regardless of sexual preference or identity.
So to me, staying in relationship is the greater spiritual challenge. As with any relationship it’s often easier to storm off and leave when disagreements arise. Staying and working things out is the hallmark of a valued relationship. It takes being vulnerable and listening and not rushing to judgment even if we are convinced beyond all measure that we are right. There are things we can learn from one another, and there are things we can teach one another.
As Bishop Curry put it to his colleagues at the end of the meeting in Canterbury: “God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow church leaders [Primates] in the Anglican family.” And to that we can all say ‘amen.’
© The Rev. Tim Schenck