Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Episcopal Church as Prophet to our Day (Taylor)

The Rev. Brian C. Taylor is Rector of St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a member of the Council of Advice for our President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson, and the author of several books, including Becoming Human: Core Teachings of Jesus, Setting the Gospel Free, and Becoming Christ, all with Cowley Publications.

His sermon has just come to our attention, but readers following news in the Anglican Communion will note that his sermon was preached on March 4 – after the primates meeting in Tanzania, after our Presiding Bishop's call for us to "fast for a season," but before the meeting of the House of Bishops' meeting in Navasota.

The Episcopal Church as Prophet to our Day
(The Rev. Brian Taylor)

Click here to listen to the audio version of this sermon.

The Second Sunday of Lent (March 4, 2007)
Luke 13:31-35

My sermon today will be about what is going on in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. I don’t like to dwell on this too much, because we’ve got more important things to do here: to develop our faith and minister to God’s people in need.

But as some have said, what is taking place right now is one of the most significant developments in our church’s history since the Reformation 450 years ago. And if you care about the kind of perspective on the Christian faith that we have here at St. Michael’s, it is important for you to know what is at stake. It’s not just about sex. It’s whether Christianity will be able to have any relevance to our modern world.

In today’s gospel Jesus places himself firmly in the long tradition of Jewish prophets who came before him. Herod, the Jewish puppet king who collaborates with the Romans, is apparently out to kill Jesus. The Temple authorities and the Roman leaders – the whole domination system - is ready to do away with this troublesome prophet. Why?

Because he directly challenged their power and social control: by healing without proper authority, by pointing out the oppressive nature of Temple taxes and sacrifices, by encouraging people to violate the purity laws if a higher need was evident, by revealing the hypocrisy of their religious leaders, and by mixing together Gentiles and Jews, women and men, rich and poor, clean and unclean.

But worst of all, he brought all this to a head by directly and publicly confronting the domination system of Temple and Rome in the Temple itself when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. They had to get rid of this threat, this prophet, as they had so many times before. As Jesus said, It is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! Go and tell that fox Herod that I continue my work, nonetheless.

The tradition of Jewish prophets did not end with Jesus. In the Christian church, prophets arise whenever God needs to confront the domination system of the day: St. Francis, who called the medieval church back to the gospel, Martin Luther of the Reformation, pacifist Quakers and Christian Abolitionists, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Oscar Romero, the martyr of Latin American Liberation Theology.

I believe that today, God has raised up the Episcopal Church as a prophetic voice of the gospel. The question is, will we risk the wrath of King Herod?

The primates of the Anglican Communion – that is, the heads of all the provinces like the Episcopal Church - have called us on the carpet. We are told that we have committed several offenses: we have affirmed gay and lesbian relationships of love; we have rejected the authority of the Bible; we have gone soft on traditional doctrine that says salvation is by Christ alone; and we have dared to stand apart from the majority of the world in these things. This is our last chance to shape up before we face expulsion.

I have great hope. The Anglican Communion may be about to split up, but I believe that something more valuable will emerge (if you can imagine anything more important than Anglican unity!). For the Episcopal Church is beginning to be a light to this modern world, showing ourselves to be a credible form of Christianity in a time when Christianity has become increasingly incredible. By the grace of this world-wide crisis in the Anglican Communion, we now have the opportunity to seize the day and help modern people find faith again.

For it now becomes obvious that we are not biblical literalists. We approach the Bible by looking at the historical context of these writings, by sifting through what is the eternal voice of the Spirit and what is the limited and sometimes misguided voice of the times in which they were written – just as Jesus did with his own scriptures.

We approach our doctrine the same way. We hold to the big truths without having to nail them down too specifically, knowing that much of it is metaphor, that doctrine is like beautiful and deeply true poetry, suggesting a mystery that can be known by the heart but cannot ultimately be spoken by the mind. We also are willing to let doctrine evolve, as God reveals new understanding to humanity – just as the early church did.

The world needs a church that doesn’t see the Bible as a rule-book, but as a chronicle of a sacred journey. The world needs a church that isn’t exclusive and triumphant about the uniqueness of Christ, but knows that other religious and spiritual paths also lead to God. The world needs a church that understand that what matters in relationships is not outmoded taboos based on ignorance, but the quality of love – commitment, responsibility, respect, devotion, self-sacrifice, truth, and faith. The world needs a church that is willing to be open to fresh understanding about God and humanity that comes from the Spirit.

Finally, we are called to task for having dared to stand on our own about all this, in spite of the opposition of so many throughout the Anglican Communion and other churches. We are told that we are arrogant and insensitive; we should repent. The assumption here is that the opinion of the greatest number of people in the Body of Christ must be, by the weight of sheer numbers, the voice of God.

The majority is not always right. The majority sometimes does terrible things in the name of God. Sometimes the only expression of truth is the voice of the one crying in the wilderness. I believe that in this case, the Episcopal Church is that prophetic voice. We are speaking truth to a world that needs to hear it. And we shall probably receive a prophet’s reward for it, as Jesus warned us. We will be sacrificed. But that’s how God moves the world forward, by the way of the cross.

I’m tired of being patient. I’m ready for us to say Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead. If we are being forced to play the prophet, then let the prophet’s reward come, now. Go and tell Herod, that fox, that we must continue to do the work of the gospel. And I truly believe that this is where the Episcopal Church will end up before too long.

But in the meantime, our Presiding Bishop is urging caution. She asks us to live for a couple of years with a compromise: to temporarily refrain from supporting gay and lesbian relationships through blessing ceremonies, and to cooperate with a leadership council for the traditionalists, to be controlled by the primates. She hopes this will keep this ship together until General Convention meets in 2009 and all of us together can make a definitive decision about these matters. We’ll see if our bishops agree with her when they meet 10 days from now.

These are trying times. So many beliefs, taboos, prejudices, and assumptions are being challenged. The rate of social change, the complexity of human diversity, the crush of information, the dangers we face are too much for some to bear. And so they revert to easy black and white answers. But in the middle of this time is the Spirit, as always, working through our confusion and conflict to bring a new thing into being. For this is the eternal work of the Spirit – to resurrect God’s people when their old ways are dying.

If we as a church can muster up our courage, we just might be a prophetic voice of the Spirit for our day. As the world watches, we might proclaim, at great risk to ourselves but to the great relief of so many, that the Bible and church teaching can be handled seriously and reverently, but also lightly and skeptically. We might proclaim that God’s holiness and blessing is free to show up in all kinds of surprising relationships and places. And we might show by our life that even though the majority may sometimes stand against the prophet, the light of the gospel continues to shine through the ages.


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