The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 5, 2015
For the past two weeks, I have been in Salt Lake City, Utah, for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. General Convention is the legislative body for our church, so priests, deacon, bishops, and lay people from all over the world were there. We gathered for prayer, for conversation, for worship, and yes, for voting too.
And that’s probably what you heard about. The mainstream news media, on the heels of the Supreme Court decision two weeks ago, picked up on the conversation taking place within the Episcopal Church about marriage. But actually, that conversation was just a small part of what General Convention did. Marriage was not the thing everybody was talking about in Salt Lake City. But the media did not pick up on this.
What everybody was talking about in Salt Lake City was evangelism. And mission. And planting new churches. Conservatives and liberals, traditionalists and progressives, high church, low church – the most important conversation taking place at General Convention was evangelism.
In the gospel reading for today, Jesus instructs his disciples to go out two by two into the villages of Israel, proclaiming the good news. With a radical commitment on God, the disciples did not take extra money, they did not pack an overnight bag. They struck out into the villages trusting that God would provide. And of course, God did provide. God provided the disciples with the faith to preach the good news and heal the sick. God provided the disciples with places to stay and food to eat. And at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, we recommitted ourself to the same. Millions of dollars were allocated over the next three years to planting new Episcopal communities. Four million dollars was collected through those little blue boxes that goes directly to mission and outreach. We had conversations about how to spread the good news of Jesus Christ through Facebook and online. Bishops were joining Twitter at an alarming rate.
And to cap it off, the General Convention elected Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina to be the next Presiding Bishop. Bishop Curry loves Jesus. And he talks about how he loves Jesus. And his vision for the next nine years is for the Episcopal Church to go out into the world to spread the good news of Jesus. Bishop Curry is the most energetic and inspiring preacher in the Church. That’s what everybody was talking about at General Convention.
And that’s what we are going to focus on at Holy Comforter. Evangelism. Mission. Outreach. Holy Comforter is not going to be defined by labels the world would put on us. We are not conservative or liberal, traditional or progressive, we are not high church, we are not low church. We will be not defined by who we are, but by what we do. And what the Church does, in the name of Jesus, is to connect with the living God and share that good news with anybody who is willing to listen. We are going to go from Starbucks, to Google, to even our own parking lot proclaiming the good news of Jesus. We will hand out food to the hungry and shelter the homeless. And if we try something that doesn’t work, then we’ll move on. Just like Jesus told his disciples.
Now, after two weeks in Salt Lake City, I picked up on something that is very peculiar in that city. The roads there are very, very wide. Even through downtown Salt Lake City, the roads or at least double the width of what we have in downtown Houston. Legend has it that the Mormons designed the roads this way when they planned Salt Lake City. The point of wide roads was that the Mormon settlers could turn their wagons around without getting frustrated and using foul language.
What I learned this week, was that if the roads in Salt Lake City are wide, the Episcopal Church is even wider. In the midst of the conversation on the nature of marriage, the most traditional bishops in the Episcopal Church wrote a letter reiterating their belief in traditional marriage and their displeasure with anything else. These bishops were not spurned. They weren’t cast out. In fact, the opposite happened. Following that letter, the rest of the House of Bishops adopted a letter expressing their love, admiration, and collegiality with those who wrote that first letter. There were no pointing fingers or name calling. No us and them. Bishops and priests and deacons and lay people disagreed tremendously on marriage, but would then pray together. Worship together. Sing together. And go out to dinner together. The news didn’t show you that despite our differences, the Episcopal Church showed great unity. This diversity is not a weakness, it is our greatest strength. Relationships across the Church have been created that go much deeper in love than doctrinal disputes.
So when we go out into the world to share the love of Jesus, we can show them this unity. We can show the world a place where the love of Jesus comes first, and there are disagreements on the rest. What we can show to the world is that there is a place big enough for all sorts of people – liberal, conservative, progressive, traditional – to find a home. What we show to the world is that we all believe in one Lord, one faith, and baptism – and that is what binds us together.
We do this now, because Episcopalians have always done this. These recent disputes over human sexuality, in fact, pale in comparison to previous chapters in the history of the Episcopal Church. In September of 1862, the north and south fought the Battle of Antietam. That was the bloodiest single day in American history, over twenty thousand casualties in just a few short hours. On that savage day, some Episcopalians wore blue and some wore gray. Some believed that the Bible justified slavery. Some believed that the Bible stood for liberty. And so they fought. And killed one another with a savagery not seen since.
One month after the Battle of Antietam the bishops of the Episcopal Church in the Union gathered for General Convention. They prayed, and they wrote a pastoral letter to their southern brothers. They didn’t gloat because the Union had won the Battle of Antietam. They didn’t shame their brother bishops in the south. The letter they wrote extended grace and charity. A grace and charity that we can hardly imagine. At the end of their letter, the northern bishops prayed that “wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking may be put away from both sides. They prayed, may we “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another even as hope that God, for Christ’s sake, hath forgiven us.”
The story goes on. The Episcopal Church was fully reunited in 1865, just a few months after the end of the Civil War. Though Episcopalians on both sides lost sons, and brothers, and uncles, and fathers – our faith, our baptism, and our Lord is bigger than any of that. Though Episcopalians still disagreed on the theological nature of slavery, some thought it was instituted by God, others thought that the slaves should be free; Episcopalians would not allow such differences to divide them. This was not true of all Christian denominations. The Presbyterian Church that split during the Civil War was not reunited until the 1980s. The 1980s. The Baptist Church is still divided along their old Union and Confederate lines. I do not mean to sound trite, but if the Episcopal Church can live together in charity just a few months after the Civil War, we can live together now.
The mainstream news media would have you believe that all General Convention talked about was marriage. That just isn’t the truth. We talked about Jesus. We talked about how Jesus sends us into the world to show his grace and love, and how our example of unity is a gift. It is a gift. We can disagree wildly about same sex marriage, about gun control, about the death penalty, about warfare, about remarriage after divorce, about any number of theological issues – but what we all do agree on is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. One meal that binds us together. And one common mission – to tell the world about Jesus.
As we move forward, I pray that we hear each other, and do not respond so quickly out of our own sense of triumph, or sense of anger, at the cost of fracturing relationships. I pray that we restrain ourselves from name calling. I pray that we hear one another, and look deeply again at our holy scriptures and traditions. I pray that we put away malice, evil speaking, and wrath. I pray that we are tender-hearted, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in grace, and that we forgive one another, just as God has forgiven us.