Sunday, January 16, 2005
St. Stephen’s Church West Valley City, Utah
Sermon: The Rt. Rev. Otis Charles, 8th Bishop of Utah
Blessed are you, O God:
the Sender, the Sent, and the one who proceeds;
Blessed are you, O God, who opens for us here and now
the Heavenly Stream for all our needs. Amen.
Being here at St. Stephen’s this morning is the “gift” of the special meeting of the House of Bishops convened, this past week in Salt Lake City, to consider the report from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Communion frequently referred to as the Windsor Report.
The report addresses the challenge of living together in the Anglican Communion. It seeks to lay out a theology and structure to support the culturally diverse member churches living together in unity. It is the beginning of a conversation intended to reduce tension within the Anglican Communion resulting from the election, confirmation, and consecration of Gene Robinson to be the Bishop of New Hampshire.
The bishops meeting in Salt Lake City also provided me with an opportunity to introduce my partner, Felipe, to Utah and celebrate birthdays with my daughter’s Elvira and Emilie.
When some one asks where I’m from, I say I was born in Norristown, outside of Philadelphia; grew up in New Jersey; worked in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts; but my roots are in Utah. I was once and am for all time the 8th Bishop of Utah. Utah is home.
I am particularly glad to be here at St. Stephen’s this morning because you have a special place in my heart. We dreamed and planned together for the congregation’s growth and development. When you called Lee Shaw to be your priest, I rejoiced for you and for Lee; you are such a gift for each other.
Thinking about being with you, I remembered a conversation during my time as bishop. St. Stephen’s was in the process of selecting a new vicar. A member of the vestry indicated that any recommendations I might make would be welcome. “Only, just don’t send us a gay priest,” he said. How far we have come in the Episcopal Church.
Before Christmas Felipe and I had three movies on our “must see” list: Kinsey, Bad Education, and The Motorcycle Diaries.
The Motorcycle Diaries tell the story of Che Guevara’s transformation from a privileged, idealistic, asthmatic, middle class Argentinean medical student, to a charismatic champion of those who are excluded, used, marginalized, and exploited.
In the 1960s and 70s, Che became an icon of liberation and freedom. At our own diocesan convention, convened in Moab in the early 70s, we processed from the convention motel down Main Street to St. Francis’ Church to a litany of petitions gathered from Che Guevara’s writings.
But, back to the movie. As an “about to be” doctor, Che takes a semester off from his studies. He and a friend, a medical technician, intend to travel on the friend’s motorcycle through all the countries of Latin America ending up in Colombia.
Imagine a twenty-three year old you know setting out to see all the states of the United States but on roads as they are in wilderness areas of Utah. No I 80s.
The worst fears of Che’s parents are realized. The motorcycle gives out in the middle of no where. But they are innovative young men. And they are determined to complete their journey.
By pre-arrangement they visit a doctor in Peru who directs them to a leper colony on the Amazon River.
The colony crystallizes Che’s consciousness of “the other:” the lepers live on one side of the river, staff on the other side.
In preparation for their visit to the colony, the chief doctor briefs Che and his friend on the work. He takes particular care to assure the young men that leprosy is not contagious.
Crossing Amazon in an open boat the doctor hands Che and his friend latex gloves. It was a rule of the Mother Superior of the community of sisters who ran the colony that no staff might touch a leper with bare hands.
Che asks, “Why? If leprosy is not contagious why wear gloves?” The doctor says, “Just do it.” Che hands the gloves back to the doctor, refusing to wear them. His first act ashore is to shake hands with a man whose hands are knurled, deformed from the disease. The man draws back, saying, “Don’t you know the rule?”
In the course of his several week residency in the colony Che, by his example, transforms the relationships between the staff and the lepers.
The night before Che’s departure, the staff throws a birthday party for him. As the party is ending, he walks to the river shore. Across the river he can see the lights of the leper colony. It is there he wants to celebrate his birthday.
Over the protests of his friend, Che strips off his clothes and dives into the river. Driving himself beyond his debilitating asthma, he makes it to the other side.
The story of Che and the leper colony is a metaphor for the challenge facing each one of us in our own personal journey: the challenge of meeting “the other.” Makes no difference whether or not we ever leave home.
The story of Che and the leper colony is also a metaphor for us as church.
In this story, New Hampshire is our “Che.” I say New Hampshire, not Gene Robinson.
It was the clergy and people of the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire, together, who determined to stop wearing the “gloves” of exclusion.
It was the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, electing Gene Robinson, an openly out gay priest with a partner of twenty years, Mark Andrew, which became our “Che,” diving into the “river” separating those who are gay and lesbian from the rest of the church.
It was the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire that swam to the other side of the “river,” overcoming caution, throwing away fear, risking themselves for the vision of a world in which there is neither gay nor straight but all are one in Christ.
The General Convention that confirmed Gene Robinson’s election and the 50 bishops who participated in his consecration are (as the leper colony staff was) a community transformed by New Hampshire’s example.
And, as a gay man, one of the “lepers,” I say we who are gay or lesbian, transgender or bisexual experience healing in and through these acts.
There are those who say that all change is bad and some change is worse than other change.
Change, departure from what is familiar, “traditional,” comfortable and non-challenging frequently results in feelings of stress and tension.
There was great tension when the church was addressing the likelihood of a woman being elected to the episcopate (after all, if women are ordained priest, it’s probable that women will be called to serve as bishops).
The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, addressed the anxiety, using Canterbury Cathedral as a metaphor for the church’s stress and tension.
He spoke of standing in that great gothic building, with its buttresses thrusting in, its interior columns rising, spreading into interlocking arches, thrusting out. Without the tension and stress of the opposing forces the cathedral would collapse.
His predecessor, Donald Coggan, recognizing the tension within the church caused by the ordination of women chose the violin as his metaphor: without tension in the strings and bow, there is no music.
This past week at the meeting of bishops, one bishop underscored the positive grace of unity in diversity with the story of a music director attempting to teach some Taize music. The singers were all droning along on the same note. In frustration the director exclaimed, “God does not like unison. God likes grand and glorious harmony.”
One of the most poignant responses to the request of the Commission on Communion that we, the Episcopal Church, stop what we have begun in the consecration of Gene Robinson, came from Carol Gallagher, Suffragan Bishop of Southern Virginia: “Long before I was a priest or a bishop,” she said, “I was a mother. Child birth is painful, even life threatening, but you don’t stop it. It is not possible to put a moratorium on a birth process.
As with the women’s movement that came to fruition with the inclusion of women in all orders of ministry, so today, with the inclusion of gay men and lesbians, living in committed relationships, in all orders of ministry, we are in a birthing process. It is painful and, at this moment to some, seems life threatening to the Anglican Communion. The church will never be the same but you don’t stop the birthing process. The pain leads to the glorious gift of new life.
The altar in San Francisco’s St. Gregory of Nyssa Church, where Felipe and I exchanged our vows last April, stands in a rotunda. For the Great Thanksgiving and communion, the congregation gathers in a circle about the altar.
Above, circling around the rotunda, are figures of those we call holy — all dancing with Christ in a circle above the altar as we frequently dance below. One of the holy ones is Black Elk who said, “all life is holy, it is the eyes of men that are dark.”
But you know, God has caused a new light to shine in our hearts.
This “new light” is transforming our consciousness, leading us to “respect the dignity of every human being.”