The following is a transcript of the sermon delivered by our rector Alastair on January 17, 2016 (Epiphany 2 (2016) Year C RCL) in response to the exclusion of the American Episcopal Church from the international conference of bishops for being too inclusive. The congregation applauded.
On our wedding day, a few years back, we had two services – because one is never enough, service wise, is it? The service in the morning was a Eucharist and the afternoon the wedding itself – as to why, it’s a long story and one I won’t bore you with here… but in the morning Eucharist we had the same Gospel as we heard today. This wonderful story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of John – rather different to the temptation accounts we’ll be hearing soon.
If I may name drop for a moment, the Gospel Reader was a friend of ours called Mike Beasley – now more grandly known as the Rt Revd Dr Michael Beasley, Suffragen Bishop of Hartford in the see of St Albans. As Mike read the Gospel lesson we got past the where and when and who was at this wedding to the declaration ‘The.Wine.Ran.Out.’ From his tone of voice, it was obvious that this was a moment of great import, tragedy even, and was going to need some serious work to undo this moment of deep distress. A miracle even.
I still recall that tone of voice clearly. There’s other things that stand out from the blur of my own wedding day, but this one often bubbles up in my memory with a smile. It’s the tone of voice I could imagine someone using when they say:
Yes, having mentioned my concern about the meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion – the senior Bishops of the Anglican Church – in Canterbury, many of us have been shocked and disappointed by the headlines which followed. At first we were hearing that The Episcopal Church – our neighbours to the South, with branches throughout the world – had been suspended from the Anglican Communion. Then it became clearer and more nuanced, the Primates had recommended censure – that TEC would not represent the Anglican Communion to any outside bodies, and would be given a voice but no vote in any policy making for the next three years. Not that the Primates can make this decision, as such, they have recommended that the Anglican Consultative Council – the governing body of our Communion – take these measures. And they probably will.
And why? Well, it’s because TEC took the apparently terrible step of not only allowing same gendered couples to be blessed following their marriage, but undertook to change their marriage canon to say that marriage is between ‘two people’ rather than ‘a man and a woman.’. Not only that, but the repeated affirmation and celebration of the ministry of LGBT people, and the warmth and inclusiveness for which TEC is renowned is – to quote one Archbishop ‘Outside of Biblical, Godly Order’.
It seems somehow ironic, therefore, that today’s reading is the story of the Wedding in Cana – a story of graciousness, and hospitality, and abundance based around a celebration of marital love. We may not hold to an understanding of an interventionist God, but you can’t help but wonder if the Spirit has been at work with a slightly dark sense of humour amidst the hurt and sadness that has come from this statement.
To be honest, for many of us, it feels like a ‘The wine ran out’ moment for us now as Anglicans. In the story it would have been catastrophic for such an occurrence to take place at a wedding feast – even a cause of shame for the family providing for their guests. It would have been considered a great failure of hospitality.
And for those faithful LGBT members of our Church, and other parts of the Anglican communion, we may well be accused of a great failure of hospitality as a body. For those of us who stand as allies, longing to celebrate the rich diversity of human sexuality and gender identity we feel that the church – which despite its flaws we have continued to love and be committed to – can be seen to be in a place of shame. And the upcoming vote on our own broadening of the Marriage Canon in July is now subject to pressure that, TEC having been suspended from certain roles in the Communion may mean that we would share a similar fate. This may sway some of the more moderate members of the Synod in the coming months.
So where do we go from here. Back to the Biblical narrative for today. In fact, our Scriptural choices for this Sunday may offer us a gracious and encouraging way of considering our course of action as individual Christians and as a community.
Following the tragedy of a wine shortage at the wedding Jesus’ mother draws his attention to the situation “They have no wine”. Now, I don’t know about you but the reply Jesus gives has always seemed a bit prickly to me “Woman’ what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” But Mary, disregarding what might seem a rather harsh comeback tells the servants “Do whatever he tells you.” And we know the rest of the story – the miraculous abundance that allows the party to continue.
I think that for me, recognising that ‘woman’ is not an offensive form of address – as it would be in common English usage – is a start to being able to recontextualise this exchange. In fact, when Jesus meets his beloved disciple and his mother whilst being led to his crucifixion he says to Mary “Woman, behold your son” and to John “Behold your mother.” – considered to be an act of supreme compassion as these two form the bond of a new kind of family even in the midst of Jesus’ suffering.
So having got over that hurdle, perhaps we can consider Jesus words again not as confrontation, but a genuine enquiry. What should I do? It’s not time for me to start? But he goes on, in our story, to perform this amazing sign of the generosity of God’s provision – a story filled with meaning and image that reminds us that the reign of God begins with giving and generosity, covers shame, and creates community and celebration.
But it takes a nudge – as Sister Brenda from the Community of St John the Divine said in preaching on this at the Emmaus community on Friday – a nudge from Mary to challenge Jesus, feeling unready, unsure of the timing, but after that nudge offering a new provision.
My hope is that the actions of the Primates in this last week is our nudge. For those of us who are actively working to be a fully inclusive, affirming and celebrating community we are being challenged to say ‘yes, the time has come’. We will, as one writer said last night, declare that “unity is nothing if based on injustice.”
One of the most moving responses to come out of the past week has been from Bishop Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of TEC, who said that the Episcopal Church will continue to be a light to the rest of the communion, and that it’s calling is to stand for the inclusion which Christ offers. “We are well, and God is good,” was his immediate response.
On reflection, our sisters and brothers in The Episcopal Church have long offered a prophetic voice to the Anglican Communion – often to the discomfort of many. One of the first provinces of the Communion to ordain women to ministry, the first to Ordain a woman as Bishop, the first province to ordain an openly gay Bishop, Gene Robinson – and a constantly adaptive and challenging presence to the church at large. Bishop Curry stated that he believes that the calling of TEC is to stand fast in that route the Church has, by common consent but not without difficulty, taken.
That’s where we too can gain encouragement. We should not allow this to deter us from our ongoing calling to speak up for full inclusion within our own Anglican Church of Canada – to continue St John’s prophetic calling which critiques structures which degrade or dehumanise or make any of God’s people out to be second class citizens. The opening of today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is an inspiration.
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.” For the sake not only of our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered members, but for the sake of the whole body we are, I believe, called to continue to speak out for justice, equality and inclusion. We are being called to speak out as a community, by what we say and share in our conversations, to our Synod reps, to our Bishops and leadership – by writing to our Primate and all those who have responsibility in our Church to encourage them to stay the course – no matter what the consequences with regards to our standing in the communion, as the consequences for the witness of the Church to all peoples is so much more important.
We are being called to encourage our brothers and sisters in The Episcopal Church, and especially the Presiding Bishop – that they may know their own witness and faithfulness to a Gospel of welcome and love is appreciated and needed by the wider Anglican Church.
We are being called to pray. To seek strength and wisdom from God in order that we may face whatever difficulties may lie ahead, and remain faithful to the core values, the Christ values, we hold – that all are welcome, and all have a place, in the life of our Christian community.
We will remain faithful. In Isaiah the prophet goes on to say “The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.”
We seek that miracle that comes from the unexpected action of God in love – the transformation that changes everything, and brings about abundance and celebration.
I haven’t mentioned our other reading for today – and I’m not going to say much, but to take note that this passage from 1 Corinthians 12 is about Church Order – it is concerned with making sure that amongst all the Spiritual gifts which are around, there is a sense of purpose and good order. Paul acknowledges that the gifts of the Spirit are exciting, and sometimes unruly, and that it is wise to keep a sense of accountability and shape to the life of the Church. But, and this is the quirk of having our Bible’s artificially chopped into chapter and verse – the next verses, in 1 Corinthians 13 are even more powerful in their contrast to this: Now, says St Paul, I will show you the more excellent way and continues with that beautiful passage about the Primacy of love above all else.
The miracle of the Church is that even when we make mistakes we can still be moved forward, even when the institution seems to hold back the Spirit, love takes hold and moves us on. And if we remain steadfast, if we hold to our desire to be fully inclusive, no matter what – then one day, we trust, we will be able to say “But you have saved the best wine until now.”
Thanks be to God.