Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year C)
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA on Sunday May 19, 2019.
On my last day in Scotland, I visited the country’s beautiful capital city of Edinburgh. In this one day, I took a bus tour of the city, visited the great cathedral of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland St. Giles’ (called the High Kirk), walked the Royal Mile to the Edinburgh castle, took a barrel ride at the Scotch Whisky Experience, and visited four Scottish Episcopal churches. The Scottish Episcopalians are our Anglican brothers and sisters in Scotland and it was a joy to worship with them in their magnificent church buildings. At one Scottish Episcopal church, I introduced myself as an Episcopal priest and was then subsequently asked, “ACNA or TEC?” “ACNA or TEC?” I was slightly surprised by this question because it’s not a question that I’m asked very often here in the states. You might not know what these acronyms mean but it’s worth knowing in case you’re ever in Scotland or somewhere else in Europe and you tell someone you’re an Episcopalian, because you may be asked, “ACNA or TEC?” Now ACNA refers to the Anglican Church of North America, which was formed in 2009 and opposes female bishops (and in some cases all female clergy) and also opposes same-sex marriage. TEC refers to The Episcopal Church. Christ Church Eureka is obviously part of TEC, the Episcopal Church, which is a member of the worldwide Anglican communion, made up of 80 million Anglicans in 165 countries. Although the ACNA call themselves “Anglican,” they are actually not members of the worldwide Anglican communion. So my response to the question was “TEC.” I’m an Episcopal priest in TEC (The Episcopal Church).
This was kind of funny for me because on the flight back home, I sat next to a young man who worked in “tech,” referring to technology and the tech industry. I told him that I came to the realization on this trip that I apparently also work in TEC; and I proceeded to explain to him what I meant by that. Now I generally try not to inundate fellow airplane passengers with church politics, especially on a 12-hour flight, but my neighbor was curious and kept asking me questions. Among many things, we discussed the issue of homosexuality and I explained that most Bible verses that have been used to condemn homosexuality have been taken out of context and twisted. In fact, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah which is often used to condemn homosexuality is, according to the Hebrew prophets and according to Jesus himself, not about condemning homosexuality at all but rather about condemning inhospitality (Ezekiel 16:49-50; Matthew 10:15). So the tragic irony is that the very biblical text that condemns hospitality and exclusion has been used by Christians to exclude others and make the church inhospitable. Unfortunately, Christians do this way too often: use a biblical passage to justify doing the very thing that it tells us not to do.
I can often get passionate around this and I’m sure my passion was showing during my conversation on the plane. But I’ll admit that I felt proud to be in TEC (The Episcopal Church), as opposed to ACNA or whatever other denomination. I believe that the Episcopal Church has been faithful to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and to the Bible, which shows that the arc of the spiritual universe always bends towards justice and inclusion.
We see this so clearly in our reading this morning from the book of Acts in which Peter enters into a relationship with those whom he initially considered unclean (the uncircumcised Gentiles). The Holy Spirit had transformed him, over time, from someone who was basically a racist into a gentle, humble and spiritually robust leader of the church. God transformed Peter into a new person. As God says in Revelation, “See, I am making all things new.”
It is, in fact, this transformation in St. Peter that the Episcopal Church ultimately points to in explaining our own communal transformation from prejudice to embrace, especially in regards to our position on the full inclusion and celerbration of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. The Episcopal Church did not move from exclusion to inclusion in order to be more socially relevant and politically correct. No. The Episcopal Church moved from prejudice to embrace because we remained willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit through prayer and loving relationship; and the Holy Spirit consistently prodded us to embrace and include and celebrate those whom we previously condemned. And the Holy Spirit revealed to us that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice and inclusion. Just as the Holy Spirit said to Peter, so too has the Holy Spirit said to the Episcopal Church, “You must not call my beloved children profane.” You must not call profane what I have called clean.
St. Peter’s transformation led to the first church council, the Council of Jerusalem, which is described later on in the Book of Acts (chapter 15). The question for the Christians at the council was “Do we now include and embrace those Gentiles whom we initially considered unclean and profane? Do we now include those Gentiles whom our Scriptures and our traditions for hundreds of years have consistently called unclean and profane? Is God doing something new? Is the Holy Spirit revealing to us that the arc of the moral universe bends towards inclusion?” Thank God that the Christians at the time responded with an emphatic “Yes!” Because if they did not, then none of us could be Christian today unless we’re already Jewish or ready to convert to Judaism. This first church counsel changed the course of the Church forever. And since then, the long arc of the moral and spiritual universal has been bending towards love and inclusion of all. And the Episcopal Church is still riding that wave today.
Just yesterday I felt us riding that wave here at Christ Church Eureka where we hosted a successful Town Hall meeting on Transitional Housing. Our guests Sergeant Leonard LaFrance, Councilwoman Kim Bergel, local business leader Nancy Woods, and Betty Chinn and others shared stories that invited us to be more open to those whom we might initially disregard as unclean and profane. I felt especially encouraged because this weekend, the Episcopal Church’s Calendar of Saints and Commemorations celebrates Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve on the US Supreme Court; and the lawyer responsible for the Brown vs Board of Education ruling that desegregated public schools 65 years ago today; and a lifelong Episcopalian. I felt that we were honoring Thurgood Marshall’s legacy yesterday as we all signed a covenant that said that we believe in the dignity of all people and will work to ensure that everyone in Eureka has a safe place to call home. I believe Thurgood Marshall knew that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice and inclusion. He knew that our God was a God who loves to say, “See, I am making all things new!” I like to think he knew this so well because he was in TEC, the Episcopal Church.
Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” May everyone know that we are disciples of Jesus by the way we love and embrace those whom others exclude and condemn. May everyone know that TEC is not just some church politics mumbo jumbo, but that we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement, riding the same wave of St. Peter and allowing ourselves to be transformed daily by the God who loves to say, “See, I am making all things new!” Amen.