First, a quick note about one of the musical selections this morning. If you’ve looked ahead, you’ll see that we’re singing “Eternal Father, strong to save” as the final hymn – also famously known as the Navy Hymn. That choice was made to honor our eternal and heavenly Father on this Father’s Day. It is not a sign that all the rain has finally caught up with us and that we now believe we live at sea.
But on the other hand … let me play with that idea just a bit. Maybe “at sea” is exactly where we live. And maybe this grand church, the inverted ship that gives our nave its shape – maybe this is indeed our home on the storm-tossed sea of these deeply uncertain times. Today, we grieve with the people of Charleston, South Carolina; with our brothers and sisters in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; and with the people here in our city who came together on Thursday for a vigil at Bethel AME Church. Just as five of us from St. Andrew’s prayed there on Thursday, we pray here this morning for the healing of hatred, for the kingdom of the God of Love to break through the violence of racism that scars and disfigures our national life.
This week, we may find ourselves tossed by another wave on our uncertain seas. Any day now, we expect a ruling from the Supreme Court about nothing less than the legal definition of marriage. And as the Episcopal Church’s General Convention meets this week and next, it will consider changes in the church law that governs the Sacrament of Marriage, too. More on that in a minute.
So, listening to today’s Gospel reading, maybe we have more in common with the disciples than we might like. Jesus invites them to “go across to the other side” of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35) – a nice little boat ride to get away from the crowds. But out on the water, the little boat meets raging winds, and the storm threatens to take them down. If a bunch of fishermen are scared on the water, there’s probably good reason to be scared. And, by the way, where is their Lord and master? Asleep on a cushion, out of harm’s way. Really? Finally, the disciples can’t take it anymore; they wake Jesus up and yell at him, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re perishing?!” (Mark 4:38). Jesus looks at them, and shakes his head, and commands the wind and the sea to be still. It works. The display of power is, literally, awesome. But Jesus was proclaiming his real message as he slept on the cushion. It may be the only instance in Scripture of prophetic napping. “Why are you afraid?” he asks them. “Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:41) Take a deep breath, he says. Follow my lead. Sometimes calm is a prophet’s best way to speak for God.
This morning, I want to focus on the storm of same-gender marriage. When the Supreme Court issues its ruling, and as General Convention discusses same-gender marriage in the Church, the cable news networks will have a field day. So we should get ready for the wind to blow.
Of course, strong winds blow when high-pressure systems and low-pressure systems come together. In the Church, the low-pressure system in which we’ve been living is a trial liturgy to bless the lifelong covenants of same-gender couples. We haven’t had a request to use that liturgy here at St. Andrew’s – not yet – but we’ve had a long and holy conversation about it among the Vestry and with our bishop. At this year’s General Convention, we were scheduled to evaluate that trial rite of blessing and determine whether and how to authorize it for ongoing use.
That’s the comparatively low-pressure system. The higher-pressure system is the movement toward marriage equality in our nation. As you know, state laws governing marriage are chaotic – generously described as a patchwork, though patchwork quilts are usually more beautiful than the mess in which we’re living. A same-gender couple may be married in Iowa, but if they move to St. Louis, they’re … well, other than being deeply in love and committed to each other, their status is undefined because of a combination of Missouri law and two appellate-court rulings. And that’s the problem. Currently, 11 states have adopted marriage equality explicitly, and 26 others are under court rulings that make it the law there. Thirteen states, including Missouri, have explicitly made same-gender marriage illegal.1 Now we wait for a Supreme Court ruling on whether state laws restricting marriage to a man and a woman are constitutional.
What does that have to do with the Church? Well, marriage is the only remaining part of our social life in which the Church is directly enmeshed with the state. When Mtr. Anne, or Fr. Marcus, or I stand up here and preside at couple’s wedding, we are acting simultaneously as officers of the state and as sacramental ministers of the Church. I sign my name on the marriage license, for the moment an officer of county government; and I sign my name in the Church’s record book, a minister who’s helped mediate an outward and visible sign of the immense grace of God. It’s one of the more schizophrenic moments in the life of a clergy person – at least an American clergy person. If I were in England, where the Church is part of the state, I could make sense of it. Here, I’ve always been told we value the separation of Church and state. Except on wedding days.
So, amid the national conversation about marriage equality, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention will consider several resolutions about marriage. One would change the Church’s laws about holy matrimony to make the language gender-neutral, removing references to “a man and a woman” and “husband and wife.” Another resolution would approve the service text for the blessing of a lifelong covenant, which has been in trial use for the past three years. And another would approve trial forms of a marriage rite applicable to same-gender couples, for use in those places where same-gender marriage is legal.
At the level of policies and principles, I think we need to strive for consistency in the way we articulate the love of Jesus Christ and our call to live that love with every breath we take. Although “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Emerson said, I do think it’s really helpful for a Church’s governing documents not to be in direct disagreement with each other. Our marriage rite in the Book of Common Prayer says about as clearly as possible that marriage is between a man and a woman. So if we change the Church’s laws to say something different – even though it’s from a desire to embody love and justice – we’ll end up further confusing an already confused situation. If we’re going to make the marriage canons gender-neutral, and if we want to be consistent in our theology and governance, we should begin the process of changing the marriage rite in the prayer book, too, so that its language isn’t bound to gender. Perhaps we end up with a Rite I and a Rite II for marriage, as we have for Holy Communion. Now, changing material in the prayer book is a storm of its own, and (like marriage itself) it “is something not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly” (BCP 423). But it would be honest.
So there you have the level of principles and theology. Most of us – we who aren’t bishops or convention deputies – most of us don’t live there, day to day. We live at the level of loving the person in front of you. That’s our common life, where theology and policy become loving pastoral care. I can tell you this much: We have had a request for a same-gender marriage, which I am not legally allowed to perform in Missouri (at least not this week). Even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality tomorrow, Bishop Marty would still have to determine whether and how West Missouri congregations might implement it. So I can’t tell you yet what will come of that specific request. But I can tell you that marriage is changing in our nation, and those changes will affect the life of the Episcopal Church here in West Missouri, sooner or later.
Now, you don’t have to agree with me about this, but I want to say: I believe that’s a good thing. I’m proud to be part of a family of Christians that has been traveling along a path toward justice in how we practice love with the members of our household who are gay and lesbian. And I’m proud that this family of Christians struggles authentically as it travels that path. We move far too quickly for some and far too slowly for others. For me, a member of the radical middle, that tells me we’re doing our best to honor the voices of all who gather under this big tent, faithfully discerning how to journey toward God’s love and justice.
So, as we move into General Convention, and as we see the reports on Fox News and MSNBC about how the Episcopalians are considering sea changes in the definition of marriage, what shall we do, here at our level? Let me make three suggestions.
First, don’t believe everything you hear. To learn what’s happening at General Convention, I’d trust the reporting of the Episcopal News Service over the talking heads on either side of the politically charged debate.
Second, when people ask you what the heck you crazy Episcopalians are doing now, here’s a suggested response: We’re wrestling, honestly and lovingly, with the fact that a major institution in our society is in a state of flux. Some faith communities will meet that challenge by retrenching and wishing the conversation had never come. Well, it has. And this is not the first time. The Church’s views on marriage, and the institution of marriage itself, are very different in 2015 than they were in 1915 or 1815 or 1715. If you don’t believe me, ask a woman who no longer must vow to obey her husband. Ask a woman who can now own property in her own right. Ask a biracial couple who can now be legally married. Or ask a divorced person who is now welcome to receive Communion and be remarried in this Church. The Episcopal Church may be messy, but at least we’re trying to do honest theological reflection and create policies that, first and foremost, embody love and justice. I think Jesus is on board with that.
And here’s a third suggestion: Remember and reflect on Jesus’ question to his followers in the Gospel reading today: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). The issues that scream at us over cable news, the changes we see happening in our culture, the breaking down of barriers that once comforted us in happy isolation – these are, indeed, winds and waves battering our small boat. But Jesus was “in the stern, asleep on the cushion” (Mark 4:39). Jesus was engaged in an act of prophetic napping. Jesus was literally the calm in the storm, and he calls us to follow his example. We hear it throughout the Bible, this narrative of God’s loving sovereignty. With the disciples, we’re tempted to ask, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38) But as God said to Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4). As our psalm today says, the Lord commands and raises the stormy wind but also brings us out from our distress. Jesus’ silent reply to our fear is the Father’s reply, as well: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Help us, Lord Christ, to trust in your power to still the storm. And make us your prophets of holy calm.