Sermon from June 30, 2013

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The Rev. Lane G. Hensley, Rector, St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Palm Desert, Calif.
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8, Year C

  • The Desert Sun (“St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church will perform gay weddings”, June 30, 2013)

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Palos Park, Illinois is a southwest suburb of Chicago, and a wooded former artist colony in the midst of south-side, blue collar culture. And in 2003, about a month after I had become a Rector for the first time, I offered a sermon there about the wisdom of the General Convention’s confirmation of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. The senior warden took me aside and admonished me that what holds the parish together is our commitment not to discuss things about which we disagree.

A short time later, I was approached by Charles, a lovely Englishman who notified me that the parish’s custom was to offer reaffirmation of wedding vows every five years, and now was the time. So I obliged, and several couples signed up for an evening ceremony I officiated. Ever the inclusive and hospitable host, Charles made a point of inviting all the widows of the congregation to participate, and we prayed for their lost husbands. All the couples sat on one side of the church, and the two participating widows sat far apart from each other on the other side. That wasn’t planned, and it was awkward, but it drove home the point for many of us that our efforts to be inclusive and welcoming sometimes don’t work out the way we had hoped or expected.

We said again the words we all had said before:

Will you have this man to be your husband; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love this woman, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful as long as you both shall live?

Then, as now, I was then facing in a different direction, and I could see something they couldn’t: Behind the congregation, in the mostly empty choir loft, my seminary colleague Harry, still awaiting ordination at the time, had accepted my invitation to serve as our interim organist. When we got to the vows themselves, he rose from the organ bench and stood with his longtime partner, and they renewed their covenant to each other invisibly. Everyone loved Harry, and we considered ourselves blessed by his presence. But we never talked about his partner. That was part of the implied agreement.

They had been together for years, and still are. Their relationship was characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. St. Paul calls that the Fruit of the Spirit, and says there is no law against such things. They are the signs Paul tells the people of the Roman province of Galatia to watch for as they try to figure out together how to trace the path of a Holy Spirit that blows where it will. They are the signs of the times for which we watch during Advent.

Up in the choir loft, a light was shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1:5

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Earlier this week, the Supreme Court struck down provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act that had limited federal recognition and extension of marital benefits to male/female couples. The court effectively ended the provisions of California Proposition 8, paving the way for same-sex marriage to resume in California.

Our Vestry anticipated this possibility, and earlier this month, we affirmed unanimously that we see a light shining in the darkness here in the desert. And like St. Paul, we cannot be silent about what we see. As St. John writes, “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” 1 John 1:3

I am honored to announce that effective immediately, same-sex marriages will be solemnized, blessed, and celebrated at St. Margaret’s.

The Canons of the Church (Episcopal Church Canon I.18.2(b)) and our Book of Common Prayer define marriage as a union of a man and a woman (BCP p. 422), and St. Margaret’s decision represents a departure from that definition. The current Prayer Book directs that “marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.”

As if they would want to, our Vestry are not at liberty to take lightly an action such as this, or to act alone. We are accountable to, and heirs of, a Body larger than ourselves. The Episcopal Church, including St. Margaret’s, has prayed, studied, and discussed the nature of holiness in relationships, and the possibility of gay marriage in particular, for decades. Most recently, that work has found expression in a diocesan task force that culminated a detailed report of their study, and a ruling from our bishop.

St. Margaret’s has offered adult education on the subject, including a detailed public conversation in 2008 about the legal and ethical consequences of Proposition 8, led by Riverside County Deputy District Attorney and future Vestry member Joshua Hill. In 2009, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church stopped short of redefining marriage, but allowed that “that bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church” (2009 Resolution C056). Many (though not all) bishops in jurisdictions where same-sex marriage is legal have responded by authorizing same-sex marriage. Our bishop has done the same, though no bishop, to my knowledge, requires congregations or clergy to officiate same-sex marriage, or any marriage, for that matter.

The definition of marriage is not as monolithic as we often understand it to be. For example, the expectation of monogamy was not always held by Christians, and still isn’t in some parts of the world. Interracial marriage and remarriage after divorce also are examples of changing definitions and expectations where the larger concern was for the Church to discern together where and how God is bestowing grace.

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Now in the face of this, and to the consternation of some of my staff and colleagues, I am a traditionalist. I observe protocols and rubrics. But “the tradition” is more than what Christians did at a past point in time, and it includes the means by which the people of God have discerned God’s will together through history. Our comprehension of God’s truth always is limited by our circumstances, which is why Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot listen to them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you to the truth”. (John 16:12-13a).

 Let us listen, if we dare, to the unsettling words of our tradition:

  • I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Isaiah 43:19
  • Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos 5:24
  • Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8b
  • This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people. Luke 1:25
  • What God has made clean, you must not call profane. Acts 10:15b
  • There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all … are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28
  • Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8

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My own public statements do reflect my personal views, but are consistent with policies discussed thoroughly by our Vestry since before I arrived at St. Margaret’s. I’ve listened carefully to the views of our elected parish leadership and sought and received the counsel of parishioners who disagree, revising my own positions along the way.

Like St. Paul, I did not come to my own opinions or vocation by my own will or reasoning. I entered seminary on the other side of this question. When my twins were much younger and one of them saw me or Becky loving the other, they became very jealous because they thought that our love for the other came at their expense. But God’s love is not like that. God has more. Ours is a faith that takes seriously the notion of Christ’s incarnation, the infusion of the divine into what previously had seemed ordinary or even profane. As the disciples learned after the Resurrection on the road to Emmaus, incarnation means that we’re called to be vigilant and to listen for the voice and presence of our master Jesus in the words of unlikely traveling companions.

As I listened to my gay friends and classmates – now my colleagues – describe their own call to ministry, I recognized in them the disturbing but gentle and steadfast voice of the Lord who had called me in the night from the earliest days of my youth. It is a voice that cannot be faked or mocked. Like the tearful Mary Magdalene at the resurrection, who looked up and named the strange man in front of her “Rabbouni, which means teacher,” (John 20:16) I lifted up my own eyes at God’s gentle invitation and understood for the first time that God is doing a new thing. I understood for the first time that with my friends’ entry into the same ministry to which I was called, I had lost nothing. Nothing. And what I gained was beyond my comprehension.

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I believe that marriage honors God, and reveals God’s diversity, blessing, and action. Marriages that bear the Fruit of the Spirit strengthen our culture. No doubt about it. And I’d never want to do anything that erodes diminishes the holiness or stability of my own marriage or anyone else’s. But as my colleague Ed Bacon (Rector of All Saints’, Pasadena) writes, “The truth is that when gay people share in the freedom to marry, it makes families stronger, which makes communities, states and our nation stronger. I am confident that here … we know it has made our church stronger.”

If anything, I believe that serious examination of the definition and purposes of marriage calls us to strengthen our commitment to marriage even as we expand its boundaries. For example, in the Prayer Book marriage ceremony (BCP p. 425), the priest asks the congregation, “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” The covenant ceremony approved in 2012 ups the ante as the priest asks more pointed questions: “Will all of you here gathered [do all in our power to] uphold and honor this couple and respect the covenant they make?” and “Will you pray for them in times of trouble and celebrate with them in times of joy?”

These questions are at the heart of our work as the people of God. We have not been doing our job. At present, we do very little to keep the promise we make already to “uphold and honor these two persons in their marriage.” I believe the church’s energy should be expended building and strengthening the Body of Christ by nurturing holy households, discerning and calling out where we observe that God already is demonstrating the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) instead of trying to limit where God’s grace can find expression (Acts 10:15b).

Will all of you here gathered do all in your power to uphold and honor faithful and hopeful couples, nurture the seeds God has planted, and respect the covenant they make?

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As a child, I had to study and memorize the Sacraments of the Church. And one thing that stuck with me then as now was that the couple themselves are the ministers of the Sacrament of Marriage. The priest is there to officiate, to pronounce God’s blessing, and to sign the license. But a priest doesn’t “perform” a marriage, and the state does not “confer” it. A couple marry each other, sometimes against all good judgment, and sometimes, as people often observe about my wife and me, seemingly, for better or for worse, because they deserve each other.

Christian marriage is characterized by fidelity, monogamy, and permanence. And as my colleague Andrew Green observed, there is no guarantee on any of those things. I cannot create those conditions, and the days are long gone when clergy could, by virtue of our standing in the community, enforce them. But we can point to them, hold them up, equip the saints, and hope for them, watching for the Fruit of the Spirit Paul describes.

In the Episcopal Church, we require premarital counseling for all couples seeking marriage. When I officiated my first wedding 10 years ago, that prospect scared the hell out of me, and I asked for the advice of Bob Stevens, a wise priest of the Diocese of Central Florida, and the father of my seminary buddy Rob, who preached my installation here. Am I supposed to say something really profound that helps the couple understand marriage differently? Am I supposed to say something that prevents future divorce? Am I supposed to figure out who should and shouldn’t be married? Does the institution of marriage hang on what I say?

I always know I’m about to get good advice when the person I ask begins by laughing at me. “God, I hope not!” he said. “Or I’m in big, big trouble!”

“Lane,” he said, “they don’t need your permission or your advice, and they sure don’t need your judgment. They need your love. They think the passion and idealism they have now will last forever. They won’t remember your advice. But they’ll remember your love. When they lose their way and despair, they’ll remember that you had hope for them, and that you saw in them what they remember that they once saw in each other. You can be Christ for them. You can point to that firm foundation when they’re in a storm and can’t figure out which way is up.”

Our job as the Church is to love with reckless abandon. Our job is to discern whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable. These are the holy things. These are the holy people. When we see holy things and holy people, our job is wake up a sleeping world, point to the holiness with every ounce of our strength, to hold it up, bless it, nurture it, and sustain it.

Our “sixth sense” is that we see holy people. They’re all around us. And some of them don’t know they’re holy because we haven’t done our job. Today we repent of that sin and stand with joy and pride with faithful gay and lesbian couples whose holy lives reveal God’s spectacular love and presence in our world.

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My friends, St. Margaret’s is in the blessing business. Our placement on this mountain overlooking the valley is as deliberate as the cross-shaped skylight above us, intended to greet and guide pilots as they pass over this place: We are a city set on a hill, and we have a story to tell that the make the ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.

It is possible that the Vestry and I are wrong about all of this. But the deepest and most careful personal and communal soul searching I know how to do assures me that we are being invited by God to move up higher on this mountain, let our light shine brighter, and behold God’s people more broadly than we ever have known before.

We’ve got ours! Every week, we bathe here in the bath of God’s grace and love. We’ve nurtured and cared for our faith and for the people with whom we share it. We’ve been good stewards. And yet when we’ve drunk from that holy fount until we found the limits of our capacity to take in God’s grace for ourselves, God is not diminished, but insists that we turn over the water pots in this temple and not rest until the living water of God flows down and fills this valley.

There is more. There is plenty of grace to go around.

St. John writes, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” 1 John 4:18

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Our Prayer Book tells us that “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” and I believe that. All denominations are trying to get folks to come back to church. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, for example, launched a campaign several years ago called “Catholics, come home.” “You will discover,” they wrote, “why it’s worth returning to the … Faith, no matter how long you’ve been away or what’s happened while you’ve been gone.”

The truth is that in far too many cases, the barriers to our unity to God and each other have been erected by the Church itself. To those weary of the Church’s appeals for you to come home, I say to you today that St. Margaret’s is coming home to you.

I spoke earlier this week with a parishioner who’s lived and loved faithfully almost twice as long as I’ve been alive, and who wondered if he’d live to see this day come. With him, I remembered aloud the Song of Simeon, a man who greeted the infant Jesus in the temple, and who had received a promise from God that he would not see death until he had seen the Savior: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” Luke 2:29-30

“On this day the Lord has acted. We will rejoice and be glad in it!” Psalm 118:24

“What therefore God hath joined together, let no one put asunder.” Mark 10:9