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Sunday, May 15, 2022

Knowing and being known


St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
Livestream Sirach 26:10 on Facebook
Easter V - May 15, 2022

Apparently, the Spirit has given me a lot to say this morning, so buckle up.

This is a sermon about knowing and being known. The first part will lay down some basic information about the particular workings of the Episcopal Church. I would much prefer to do that during an Adult Forum but, well, we all live very busy lives. We have to capitalize on whatever time we have together. And this, I think, is both important and timely.


Actually, it’s almost that time. The 80th General Convention of The Episcopal Church will be held in Baltimore, MD, presently scheduled for July 7-14 but now under negotiation to be made shorter and smaller and hybrid because of the recent surge of COVID. It will focus on “essential” items – like passing the budget, electing a new Presiding Bishop and a new President of the House of Deputies, among other essential issues.


Now, for those of you who are new (and a lot of you are) to The Episcopal Church, let me give you a very brief, thumbnail sketch of what GC is: It is one part “My Big Phat Episcopal Reunion,” combined with one part “Dead-serious Legislative Session,” mixed in with daily Bible Study and Eucharist, and all topped off with a heavy soupcon of “The Anglican Circus has come to town.”


I do hereby confess: I am a General Convention junkie. I’ve been attending since 1985, 4 times as an elected deputy. For good or for ill, the General Convention is the way the business of The Episcopal Church is done. Every three years, we meet in convention where elected deputies vote on a variety of resolutions which then become the policy or polity of our church.


The story that gets told is that when the Constitution of the United States was being written by day in Constitution Hall in Philadelphia, some of those same people would walk down the street by night and meet in the Parish Hall of Old Christ Church where they would write the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church.


It’s not a surprise, then, that governance of The Episcopal Church very much resembles the governance of The United States. In order for a bill to pass Congress, it must pass both houses – The House of Representatives and the Senate. In order for a resolution to become policy or polity or canon (law) of the Church, it must pass both the House of Deputies (made up of four elected laity and four elected clergy from every diocese) and the House of Bishops. 


Note, please, the word deputy vs delegate. Delegates are elected to diocesan convention.  Deputies are elected to General Convention. That is due to the theology that the Holy Spirit works through the election and voting process, so deputies are “deputized” not to represent their diocese but to vote their conscience – even if that places them at odds with others in their diocese.


This is, in part, how we are known and how we know ourselves to be Christians who are Episcopalians: this entity we call General Convention; this corporate and communal work of the Holy Spirit. No diocese can come into – or out of – being, no money can be spent, no rubric can be written, no change to the Calendar of Worship or BCP or Hymnal, no canon can become law, without the approval of General Convention – laity, clergy and bishops, guided by the Holy Spirit.


To date, roughly 215 resolutions have been filed for General Convention. While it is not uncommon for a flurry of resolutions to be filed as convention approaches, the current total is far below the 500-600 resolutions typically considered at a convention. There is one resolution – and, there’s always at least one resolution – that is causing high drama and near apoplexy.


Resolution C028 has been proposed by the Diocese of Northern California that would repeal the Episcopal canon that requires worshipers to be baptized before receiving Communion in Episcopal churches.


Weeelllll . . . . you may not know this, but this has caused a firestorm in every place on social media platforms where Episcopalians gather. Now, I’ve been ‘round The Episcopal Church in general and General Convention in particular since the 68th General Convention held in Anaheim, CA, in September of 1985. That was when the so called “culture wars” were just starting to reach a boil.


Every now and again, however, this issue has reared its head and every time it does, it is met with the same hysterical, pearl-clutching drama and cries from the seminarians and graduates of what I like to call “The Chicken Little School of Theology” in which they claim that if we do away with the requirement of baptism before communion, it will be the end – THE END, I tell you! – of Christianity in general and The Episcopal Church in particular.


We will have thrown the proverbial baby out with the proverbial bath water, they say. This is not about hospitality, they say. Communion is not a coffee hour. This is not about inclusion, they say. Everyone is welcome, but you must be a baptized member to receive the sacraments. If we don’t stand for something, we’ll fall for anything. Baptism is about our identity. We can’t lose our identity.


The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Etc., etc., etc.. . . . (Le sigh)


Jack Spong, onetime bishop of Newark, an equally loved and despised theologian who often provoked pearl-clutching, Chicken Little hysteria, used to say in his quiet, confident Southern drawl, “The church will die of boredom long before it dies of controversy.”


No, I’m not going to answer the question for you. I respect your intelligence too much to provide easy answers. Instead, I want to ask a few questions. Our collect prayer contains these words: “Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life . . . “. What does it mean to ‘perfectly know’ Jesus?


In the first reading, from the Book of Acts, Peter is struggling with this very issue. He’s been following Jesus and eating with the ‘uncircumcised’ – the Gentiles, the great unwashed – who “had accepted the Word of God,” and is getting real pushback from the apostles and disciples.


So, Peter went up to Jerusalem to investigate and had a dream – three times – about the sacred and the profane. He hears a voice say, “`What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” He remembers Jesus saying, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” And, Peter asks, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?"


Indeed! What does it mean to ‘perfectly know’ Jesus? How do we know ourselves as Christians? How is it that we are known as Christians by others?


What is it that makes a Christian? Is it rational thought? An intellectual ability to hear and understand and accept the Word of God? If that is so, why do we baptize infants? Is it having been ‘slain in the Spirit’, hearing and seeing angels who direct our lives? Or, is it the ability to stand in church, properly dressed, listening to proper music, reading proper words from a proper prayer book, having been properly sprinkled with Holy Water by a proper priest and properly baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (not ‘Creator, Word, and Spirit’)?


At the “Last Supper,” in that Upper Room, after Judas left the room, Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."


Sometimes, showing love for one another means breaking the rules. Or, more accurately, it’s breaking the rules so we can follow the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. It's about breaking open the rules to release the spirit of the law vs being held hostage by the letter of the law.  


Look, I'm not saying that I think baptism ought not to be required before communion; neither am I saying that baptism ought to be required before communion. I just want you to know that no matter what General Convention (or if GC even gets to vote on the matter), I'll not be checking baptismal certificates at the altar rail any time soon.


I may have told you this story but it’s good enough to hear again. It’s the story about the Band of Brothers who were fighting in WWII – five of whom got separated from their battalion. They took on some heavy fire and one of them was shot and killed.

The remaining four could not leave their brother’s body. One of them noticed a church with a graveyard just up the hill. The four men carried their brother’s body up the hill and knocked on the door of the rectory.


They asked the priest if they could bury their brother’s body in the graveyard, promising to return after the war to pay the priest whatever it cost. The priest only had one question: Had the man been baptized in the Catholic church?

Gee, they said, we know he believed in God. We know he read the bible, so he must have been Christian. We know he loved his wife and kids and wrote home faithfully. But we don’t know anything about his religion much less whether or not he had actually been baptized.


The priest apologized and said that the cemetery was sacred ground and he could only bury those who had been duly baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But, as this was war, he would make an exception: They could bury him just outside the fence.


Which is exactly what they did. Five years after the war ended the four men found each other and planned a trip back to fulfill their promise. The found the old church and went immediately to where they had dug the grave. They were stunned to find nothing there.


Angry, they knocked on the door of the rectory and demanded to know what the priest had done with the body of their friend. “Oh, said the priest, I thought a great deal about what you said and prayed about it. And then,” he said, “I moved the fence.”


St. John wrote in the Book of Revelation, “And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new."


In St. John’s gospel, he reports that Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."


And, that, my friends, is all I really need to know about perfectly knowing Jesus and being known as Christian. God knows, it’s not easy. It’s ever so much simpler to make rules and make sure everyone follows them.


But, loving one another, just as Jesus loves us? That, I’m afraid, requires some pretty hard work. Like, moving some fences.



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