Never having had the privilege of attending National Convention of the Episcopal Church I was skeptical when veteran of convention, a good friend, told me I would be in meetings from 7 to eleven at night most days. This sounded like exaggeration. Wrong! Making time to eat was sometimes a challenge let alone anything else.
National Convention meets every three years. It is the governing body of our church in America and it is made up of people like you and me. There are two “houses”, one for the bishops and one for the deputies. The deputies are laity and clergy elected at annual councils in each diocese to participate in study, discussion, and voting on a series of resolutions in various categories that cover all aspects of our lives from capital punishment to giving thanks for the lives and ministries of individuals.
I didn’t really know what to expect. It was certainly a lot more than I could have imagined. It is only too easy to approach such an event with a battle mentality – to divide folks into “liberal” or “conservative”. To draw lines in the sand to avoid the risk of walking together on holy ground – the ground of personal encounter with the loving will of God. On the whole, I found good folks struggling to take their commission seriously and practicing their faith and decision making with compassion, good sense, and not a little humor.
How amazing then it is for me to see today’s collect. “…. grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.” That’s as close a description as I could have of the manner in which the deputies sought God’s love and truth. It turned out that Convention was not just a bunch of agenda driven people, but folks trying very hard to do what was right in a trustworthy and honorable way. They are not perfect any more than you and I are perfect, but they are human as you and I are human. The Holy Spirit seemed to turn up quite often.
The Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, had set the theme of “jubilee” for the millennium meeting. Jubilee is a time of generosity of spirit, forgiveness and desire for peace. The practice of jubilee as it was envisioned in scripture was a year when all debt would be forgiven, slaves set free, and room made for all who lived in the land. Israel was never able to fully implement such a vision of hospitality any more than we have succeeded in establishing the fullness of the kingdom of God on this earth. Nevertheless it was part of God’s dream for God’s people and it is God who gives us the desire for such a vision of love and generosity.
To be honest, at first I found this theme irritating – an artificial construct, a mold into which we were all to be forced simply because some man had decided he liked the idea. But as time went on, despite my grumbling, the spirit of jubilee seeped into the events and transactions of the meeting. As delegates began to know each other better so the spirit of trust and freedom became more evident. Each morning everyone attended Eucharist (this meant about 2000 people each day – 6,000 on Sunday – sharing bead and wine and sitting down in set groups for Bible study.) It really needed a John Hart! Perhaps it was in this place we could most clearly see what the body of Christ looks like to God. Young, old. Caucasian. Hispanic. Asian. African America. Visitors from Australia, the Lutheran church, the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and Methodists. Male and female. Handicapped and whole. All were particularly moved by a young woman who had been ordained deacon after being terribly injured in a car accident and who read the gospel one morning. Sitting in a wheelchair she proclaimed the gospel though a voice synthesizer, as she no longer can speak on her own.
That same diversity was reflected in my Bible study group. At my table alone were assembled a man from Idaho whose church had gone through a time of enormous strife, a very conservative priest from Florida, the Archbishop of Canada, a recently retired bishop, an elderly delegate from the meeting of Episcopal Church women, a woman from a tiny church in the mid-west, a volunteer from Michigan who was gay, and myself. We were all coming from different places and experiences. We all held different views and we learned how to love our differences and to trust we were in a safe place.
At the offertory people came from every corner of the massive convention hall carrying huge glass jugs filled with wine and baskets of bread. Assembled around the altar there was truly a sense of feast, of plenty.
At communion God’s people were a river of life as they walked to the source of all life and returned to the world.
It was this discipline of worship, of prayerful study, of the opening of the heart to the stranger that under girded the spirit of the convention. Despite our stumbles I was proud to be part of a church that operates less by fiat that by communal decision-making seeking the heart of God.
When we affirm the unspectacular spirit of faithful devotion I discovered that spectacular things happen. The spirit of mutual regard becomes a bigger player. The possibility of solutions to knotty problems more likely. People start thinking outside the box. The humble are given words of wisdom and the weak the gift of courage. Words of prejudice and judgment fade. Arms of love and welcome are extended.
I do want to share with you, however, one particularly horrifying incident around which the whole community of the faithful became united. Like all meetings there are certain figures that rise above the fray and General Convention is no exception. It is a body filled with people of immense talent and stature. One such is a man called Louie Crew. I had heard of Louie Crew but had little idea of him as a person. I knew he is a professor, that he is considered one of the foremost contributors to the ability of the church to adapt to modern forms of communication but I had no idea of how highly regarded he is by the church as a whole. He communicated himself as a gentle, kindly man deeply committed to serving those in need and supporting all those parts of the body of Christ who have little voice in the church. His wit and generosity were an integral part of our meetings. One afternoon he approached the microphone to ask that the salt distributed beneath his seat and the seats of others like him might be removed before Convention continued.
The press was confused. Delegates were confused. What had salt to do with anything? But Dr. Crew was clearly shaken, as well he might be. Salt is used to the ancient rites to exorcise the devil. The delegate who had distributed the salt was naming Louie Crew as satanic.
There was stunned and pained silence. Then as a single body 800 people rose in prayer and song around this man who claims little for himself and much on behalf of others. Why such hatred and fear? Why such love and desire for unity? It so happens Dr. Crew is a homosexual man who has lived with the same partner for twenty-seven years. He is not the devil but a compassionate mediator of love and acceptance among the faithful. Eight hundred people made him welcome.
Desmond Tutu writes that “one of the most blasphemous consequences of injustice . is that it can make a child of God doubt that he or she is a child of God.” Whatever else those delegates thought they knew the truth of belonging and hospitality. Tutu goes on, ” We are sisters and brothers whether we like it or not and each one of us is a precious individual. It does not depend on such things as ethnicity, gender, political, social, economic, or educational status – which are all extrinsic. Each person is not just to be respected but revered as one created in God’s image. To treat one such as if they were less than this is not just evil…. No, it is veritably blasphemous, for it is to spit into the face of God.”
It is this spirit, the Holy Spirit, who enables us to move forward as a church. Little can come from fear and anger, much from a willingness to let God do the work. As a result immense progress was made around issues of human sexuality, actions to promote peace in a violent world, to spread the gospel among the unchurched, and to put Episcopal money where it can do good.
“Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.” I don’t imagine Jesus sent them out on the basis of whether the two were best friends or even if they liked or agreed with each other. Judging from other parts of scripture they bickered a lot. But he did send them out to bring the good news of God’s reconciling love so that we might live in peace and with joy. Mark tells us that indeed “They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
We are here to make clear to the world the power of God’s healing love in small ways and large. At the end of this Eucharist, having gathered as one body, you too will be sent out into the world to proclaim God is good, that God loves all of us, and that your life will be a life lived with open arms just as Christ opened his arms of love on the cross to embrace us all. And remember. Open arms lead to empty tombs.