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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

Gospel Echoes of the Strife

Gospel Echoes of the Strife

By Victoria Mouradian

Sermon for St. Bede's Los Angeles: Aug. 22/04
Year C, 12th Sunday after Pentecost
RCL: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

Of note: St. James, Newport Beach and All Saints, Long Beach have "left" the Diocese [of Los Angeles] and have "placed themselves under the jurisdiction" of a Bishop in Uganda

Our gospel reading this morning contains a beautiful story of healing and restoration. As Jesus taught in a synagogue on a Sabbath, a bent over woman appeared who had been crippled for 18 years. She was not specifically seeking out Jesus; she had probably come to worship. Moved by her condition, he called her over, laid hands on her and pronounced her free from her ailment. She immediately stood up straight and began praising God. She was restored to a life that she had not known for 18 years. Her bent over condition would have robbed her of completing day t o day tasks. Her enjoyments would have been severely curtailed. Her conversations would have meant never looking into someone's eyes. She would have seen every inch of the ground around her but nothing of the sky. Eighteen years usually constituted half a life span for people of the ancient world, hers had been spent in a miserable position, probably in constant pain. And then, in a moment, Jesus changed all that. Restored and renewed, she rejoiced. God's healing power had moved through Jesus Christ on a Sabbath day, a holy day of rest.

The thrill of that exquisite moment was abruptly interrupted by the synagogue leader. He admonished the crowd only to seek healing on regular days of the week. The Sabbath was to be kept holy and that meant that no work could be done. In his eyes, the act of Jesus was work. The crippled woman had been ill for 18 years and her situation was not life threatening. Surely her healing could have been postponed a few hours in order to keep the 4th commandment. Jewish people were defined by matters of the Torah, or as we know, the first five books of the Old Testament. More than anything else, their obedience to keeping the Sabbath day holy and their observation of strict dietary laws framed who they were. Rabbis continually discussed what constituted work on the Sabbath and codified elaborate rules for the proper observation of that day. In defense of his position, the synagogue leader was only doing his job. He was trying to uphold what he understood to be holy. He did not interpret the untimely healing as holy work. He was following the letter of his faith tradition, not yet ready to think outside the box.

The Lord responded to this intrusion by addressing the leader and the crowd as hypocrites. He reminded them that they would untie their oxen and donkeys on the Sabbath to lead them to water; so why would not this daughter of Abraham deser ve just as much? Why shouldn't she be untied from her illness on the Sabbath? His opponents were put to shame while his supporters rejoiced in all that Jesus was doing.

I would call our gospel reading timely. It echoes the strife that has been going on this week in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. Two parishes have removed themselves from the jurisdiction of our Bishop because they cannot function beyond the letter of their perceived faith the synagogue leader, they are unprepared to think outside the box. Like the synagogue leader, they fail to see the full message of Christ when it is right before them. They fail to see that compassion is holy. They function in a church world of yester year, a time that did not fully understand the meaning of inclusion. They believe that they are being faithful to scripture which defines us as Christians. They believe that they are being faithful to church canon which defines us as Episcopalians. What they fail to see is that there is room for more than one interpretation of scripture. There is room for more than one definition of who we are. The beauty of our denomination is that it gives us room to breathe as we explore our faith journeys by way of scripture, tradition, and reason. As a church body, we embrace the via media, the middle road, which leads us through faith and theology by the power of the Holy Spirit with access to all sides.

One of the most important aspects of our denomination is our democratic polity. The Episcopal Church of the United States is governed by two voices together, clergy and laity. Both are represented at a local diocesan level and both are represented at a national level. Nothing can be implemented or restricted without their vote. Whether you are clergy or laity, when you say that you are an Episcopalian you are also saying that you believe in the theology and polity of this church. You are saying that you embrace the via media and democratic process. You are not saying that everyone must believe within your framework or vote the same way you do. The majority carries the vote. You are also saying that you belong to the worldwide Anglican Communion. The Communion is made up of independent national churches under the spiritual leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Anglican Communion is governed by democratic process as well when these national churches meet at Lambeth Conference. The Archbishop advises and guides. The Office does not impose. National churches have no jurisdiction over any other church in any other country; in fact to do so would be in violation of Communion polity.

All Saints Long Beach and St. James Newport Beach claim that our Episcopal Church USA has abandoned the historic faith. In fact, one priest of their fold referred to our church as pagan. I'd like to know which historic faith they are talking about. Historically, our Christian faith tradition has never been static. By the power of the Holy Spirit it has grown and matured throughout the centuries. Let's talk about that for a moment.

Before God revealed himself as the one and only God, people sought out relationship with him through his creation. They looked at the beauty and drama of nature and understood that mighty forces were behind it. What they didn't understand was that there was only one force. They named the forces gods and worshipped accordingly. Over time, the number of gods was streamlined into a more economical polytheistic system. In a sense, the groundwork had been laid to understand monotheism. God revealed himself as the one and only God to a people he named Israel and called them to be a light to the nations. In order for them to stand apart from pagans, God gave his people laws and rules by which to live and worship, later recorded in the first five books of the Old Testament. As time went on, God's people struggled with cycles of disobedience. The consequence of their actions promoted the rise of strict interpretations of the laws and this is what confronted Jesus in the synagogue. The letter of the law had replaced the meaning of the law. Through Christ, God transformed that. Christ reinterpreted the scriptures and his death on the cross was an end to the law. Faith in the resurrected Jesus was a reinterpretation of faith in God. After his ascension, the Holy Spirit was sent to dwell with us and guide us in our faith.

New Testament scripture was not written until well after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not give us a new religion; he fulfilled what was already in place. He didn't rewrite scripture, he reinterpreted it. The Bible as we know it was not in its final form until the end of the 4th century. Christians have never ceased to i nterpret Jesus' words or scripture; the work of the Reformation is by far the largest example of this. As Episcopalians we are from that Reformation tradition. In our case though, we couldn't be confined to any one interpretation and chose the middle road to express our understanding. And there we will remain. We are a very vital piece of historic faith tradition. At a time when England was split apart by religious differences, Elizabeth I was determined to bring together a national faith expression which captured the best of Catholicism and Protestantism. Our denominational heritage and our strength to endure rest within her groundwork, our growth lies within our mutual respect and conversation. Our particular denominational legacy in the United States is our democratic polity.

All Saints and St. James decry our inclusiveness of the gay and lesbian community to full standing within our church. Their interpretation of scripture withholds the fullness of life from ten percent of the world, not to mention ten percent within the church. Through baptism we are received into the church and belong to God through Christ Jesus. Afterwards we are sealed to Christ with holy oil and marked as one of his own forever. From that moment on, we are full members of the Body of Christ, period. And if we do that in an Episcopal church, we are received into that faith community. Nothing can change that, not the color of our skin, not our gender, not our sexual orientation. Faith is a gift freely given from God. It is not ours to give and it is not ours to take. It is ours to live. And as Christians we are charged to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to everyone, so that all might be renewed and restored like the woman in the synagogue. Had Jesus not reinterpreted the law of the Sabbath, she might never have been healed. If we do not examine and re-examine scripture we take away our freedom to do so.

The Holy Spirit has moved through the greater church throughout history, prompting, guiding, defining, refreshing. As Episcopalians, we take the work of the Spirit seriously. We move toward a greater understanding of God's grace and love by its power and our eyes are opened to implement change. When the majority voice of our denomination votes to uphold thinking outside of the box, it happens for a reason. Without such thinking we would still endorse slavery, segregated churches, child labor, suppression of women, and exclusion of the marginalized. We would be ignoring what Christ has taught us, that after loving God, the 2nd greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as our self.

Our theology is protected by our polity. We belong to a church that invites everyone into conversation, both lay and clergy. There is room to disagree. It is through that tension that we grow by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is through tha t tension that we can implement change.

At a time like this, it is very easy to be judgmental of All Saints and St. James. It is very easy to say "How dare they? dare they dismiss what we embrace as Episcopalians in the United States? How dare they accuse us of wandering from historical faith? How dare they turn their backs on what our larger church embraces? How dare they defy the Bishop and all that this Diocese stands for? How dare they not see compassion and mercy?" Well, the list could go on. Is our anger justified? Yes. Is our judgment justified? No. Because no matter what, these congregations believe that they are living up to their faith tradition...just like the synagogue leader. They deserve our prayers not our judgment. I believe that Jesus would have us pray for their restoration and refreshment. I believe that Jesus would have us pray for a peaceful reconciliation with the Bishop. I believe that Jesus would h ave us pray for their return to conversation. I believe that Jesus would have us pray for own strength to do this. Amen.

You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.


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