Sunday, July 26, 2009

Too soon to tell - A sermon about the actions of the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church (July 26, 2008)

J. Barry Vaughn. July 26, 2009. A sermon about the actions of the 76th General Convention.

Probably a majority of us here today came to the Episcopal Church from some other church. When you came to the Episcopal Church the priest who prepared you for reception or confirmation more than likely taught you about Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker and the so-called “three legged stool” that he built. You were told that Anglicans believe that while scripture is first and foremost, the Bible must be interpreted by reason and tradition. Please don’t use the phrase – “three legged stool.” It does not come from Richard Hooker,;it distorts what Hooker said; and it is misleading. Hooker borrowed an image from the Bible’s Book of Proverbs and instead referred to scripture, tradition, and reason as “a three fold cord not easily broken.” I have a problem with that analogy, too, but that’s a topic for another sermon.

There is no doubt that Hooker was right. Like Anglicanism, the `Reformation also had three principles: grace alone, faith alone, and scripture alone, but scripture is never alone. It is paramount but it is never alone. Scripture is frequently ambiguous and must be interpreted in light of reason and tradition.

I think that Hooker’s “three fold cord” has another application. It is also a useful model for looking at Anglican history. The first phase of Anglican history was dominated by scripture. Anglicanism, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, is a product of the Reformation. We are one of the Reformed churches, along with the Lutherans, Presbyterians, and so on. The first great leaders of Anglicanism – Bishop John Jewel of Salisbury, Richard Hooker, and so on – were men deeply steeped in scripture.

` But the Reformation principle of scripture alone proved unworkable. The Reformers substituted a paper pope – scripture – for the flesh and blood pope and it did not work. There must be some hermeneutic, some guide for interpreting scripture, and so the age of scripture was quickly followed by the age of reason. The age of reason gave us Jefferson and Franklin and the movement we know as Deism. Deists threw out everything they deemed incompatible with reason, such as miracles, the Trinity, the Resurrection, and so on, and tried to reduce religion to a few simple principles that could be derived from reason; There is a God; religion consists exclusively in ethical behavior; and there is an afterlife when the good will be rewarded and the evil will be punished. But while this is admirable, it is not Christianity.

So the age of reason gave way to the age of tradition. Finding Deism to be pretty thin gruel to nourish a spiritual life, 19th century Anglicans turned back to the early church. They rediscovered the catholicity of Anglicanism. They insisted on the continuity between Anglican bishops and the bishops of the early and medieval church. They rediscovered the practices of the early church – confession, fasting, pilgrimages and so on. Above all they rediscovered the centrality of the eucharist.

Anglicanism has lived in the age of tradition for some time now but I am making a prediction. Please write this down because some day I may be famous for saying this: we may have already entered the fourth age of Anglicanism and I believe it will again be the age of scripture. The church of the developing world is a church of the Bible. And this is the coming church. The world you and I live in, the developed world, is rapidly being de-christianized. So the church of the developing world is coming here to re-evangelize us. Listen carefully to what I say next: A century from now the Episcopal Church you and I know will not exist or rather it will exist but it will be transformed and the transformation will be as complete as the change from caterpillar to butterfly. But I know one thing about the church that is to come: it will again be a church of the Bible.

Week before last in Anaheim the General Convention made two decisions that have occasioned a great deal of controversy. First, they lifted the moratorium on the election and consecration of gay and lesbian bishops. Second, they took very tentative steps toward developing a liturgy for blessing same gender couples.

Whether you think General Convention was right or wrong, please keep this in mind: the church is not a museum piece. It is not static. We are a pilgrim church, not a church of those who have already arrived. The church is dynamic, not static. We are always changing.

However, the church does consist of both fixed and variable elements. The difficult is knowing what things are fixed and what things are variable. The so-caled Serenity Prayer is very applicable to our situation: “Lord, help us to change the things we ought to change, to accept the things we cannot change and the wisdom to know the difference” And there’s the difficulty – having the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and should change and what we cannot and must not change.

I believe that certain things are fixed: scripture, the creeds, the sacraments, and so on. Consider this: After the Anaheim convention, not a word of scripture has been deleted; not a word of the creeds has been changed; the Ten Commandments are intact; Jesus still tells us to love God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great American preachers of the early 20th century, used to say, “Astronomy changes but the eternal stars abide.”

When we began to ordain women to the offices of priest and bishop, many claimed that we had abandoned the faith, but theologian Paul Avis observed that the baptismal faith of the church was unaffected by the ordination of women. We still confessed that that we believed in God the Father, in his Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. This remained the faith of the church regardless of whether we ordained women or not.

I believe the same is true today. I know that some of you are deeply troubled by the decisions of General Convention. But please remember two things: the baptismal faith remains unchanged. And secondly, remember that the church in general and Anglicanism in particular are ever changing. The church we are today will bear little resemblance to the church we will become in a century. Or to paraphrase what Mark Twain observed about the weather in New England, If you don’t like the Episcopal Church, just wait a minute.

In conclusion, I want to offer a Buddhist parable that may be helpful.

A farmer had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. The farmer went to a monk and complained bitterly about his bad luck. “Too soon to tell,” the monk said. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the farmer exclaimed to the monk. “Too soon to tell,” the monk said. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The farmer again complained to the monk of his bad fortune. “Too soon to tell,” the monk said. The day after that, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The farmer went to the temple to offer thanksgivng and encountered the monk and told him his wonderful news. “Too soon to tell,” said the monk.

It is too soon to tell the effect of the most recent General Convention and its decisions. But we are not asked to get everything right; we are only asked to be faithful and to trust God.