I was privileged to be a part of the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I left on July 2nd and arrived home yesterday afternoon. I am pleased to say, that although there were strong feelings expressed by deputies and others testifying at committee hearings on several issues, no one was beheaded like happened to John the Baptist in today’s gospel, and no one’s head was presented on a platter to anyone in the house of bishop.
In fact, it was clear that those in attendance at the convention were committed to what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement. Remaining together in Christ is paramount in our work together. The assembly was respectful of differences of opinions, even on issues that evoked strong feelings. Frankly, the church modeled the grace to accept differences in theology and politics in a way that made me proud.
In the Episcopal Church, we may challenge one another on matters of theology and practices of our faith, but we place love of God and love our neighbors over our differences. This is, after all, what brings us together. We come together seeking a closer relationship with our God and this compels us to move into deeper relationships with others.
As Episcopalians we say, “All are Welcome Here,” and we do try, but we are human and what welcomes some pushes others away. Several resolutions were introduced at convention that sought to ensure that all do feel welcome. However, after testimony, it was clear that making one group feel fully included would result in another group feeling excluded.
We discussed liturgies, and people said, “words matter.” They matter to us because what we say in our worship and in our prayers helps to shape what we believe – and vice versa. Many feel it is it time to begin work on a new prayer book making our liturgy be more inclusive and reflect God’s call to us to care for creation. Many find comfort in the words we use in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and do not wish to make any changes. In the end, however, we settled for adoption of new optional liturgies and authorizing ongoing work on “trail liturgies.”
There were over 500 resolutions introduced at this Convention and actions in the House of Deputies had to be approved by the House of Bishops and actions in the House of Bishops had to be approved by the House of Deputy. Resolutions adopted in one house could be amended in the other and send back for approval. So, it will take some time to sort out exactly what was passed and how some of the amendments changed what the resolutions sought to accomplish.
I do know, however, that marriages of same gendered couples will not only continue, it will be available in all dioceses where it is legal. Although marriages are legal in the United States, there are Episcopal Churches and dioceses in other countries – thus the wording, “where it is legal.” I also know that the Anglican Church in Cuba was received back into the Episcopal Church after having been separated for over 50 years.
Reconciliation was a major theme at this convention – from racial reconciliation to addressing the “Me Too” movement. I was horrified to learn of the many abuses that have been a part of women’s experience in our church. Listening to people’s experiences of injustice, at home and abroad, received a great deal of time and discussion resulting in a number of resolutions being made in hopes of bringing about changes in our church and in the world.
Throughout the two weeks, we worked, debated, and worshiped. I was deeply moved on a number of occasions as I felt God at work, calling us to be instruments of his love. Listening to and loving people who live in the margins in our world – striving to create a more just church and society.
One of the recurring themes in Presiding Bishop Curry’s sermons is that we are called to “the way of love.” We are, he points out, to love all people, including Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and people of every race and orientation, those we agree with and those with whom we disagree. Jesus calls us to love all people, he makes no exceptions.
As we seek to welcome others, we must do so “with God’s help.” Many of us especially need God’s help loving those with whom we disagree. How we verbalize our differences and debate issues makes a tremendous difference. Not only in the church, but in our nation today. Words that attack a person are not based in love. Words that express different points of view may or may not be, depending on how we say them.
While in Austin, I was considering the challenge of informing you of our work at convention in light of today’s scriptures. A colleague pointed out that although our attention is drawn to the beheading of John the Baptist, it begins with people discussing Jesus.
Some were suggesting he was the great prophet Elijah, others a great prophet as of old, and still others were saying he was John the Baptism having come back to life. Herod says, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” My colleague then suggested that Herod says this because he is afraid. Despite having beheaded John the Baptist, Herod recognizes that the power of love is the greatest threat to his reign.
Think about this. The power of Jesus was revealed on the cross. Throughout history, people in power have relied on fear to control others. People afraid of death, submit to those in power. Jesus may have feared death, but his love for us was greater than his fear and he offered his life for us. His love not only overcame his fear, it overcame dead. Love, Christ’s love is liberating.
God’s love is what frees us from fear and enables us to respond to others who lash out, with words of love. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, not to engage them in battle. Words do matter, and I have found that praying for people in positions of power and authority is especially important when I disagree with their approach to addressing today’s problems. It helps me, because praying for them helps me to remember that they, too, are children of God and in need of God’s love and help – in need of our love. It helps me remember to speak about the issues rather than their character.
The way of love can overcome the fear that separates people from one another. Bishop Curry says the Jesus Movement is loving, liberating, and life-giving – and it is what we are called to be. We are not called to oppose one another, instead we are called spread the love of Christ to others. Don’t misunderstand me, we are called to speak in opposition to oppression and injustice, but not to condemn other. Love is what will ultimately turn people around, turn them back to God, back to the one who created them – who create us all.
Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, we give you thanks for the love you have made know to us through Jesus. Help us, we pray, to follow him in the way of love. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.