Giving thanks for the voices of resistance in the Church of England to the bishops’ report on ‘LGBT issues’ last week. Here is another wonderful sermon, by Leanne Roberts, Canon at Southwark Cathedral:
“First they came for the latinos, muslims, women, gays, poor people, intellectuals, and scientists, and then it was Wednesday.” Thus quipped comedian and writer Jonathan Katz on – where else? – Twitter, after an extraordinary week where the much of the world watched in shock and dread as the new President of the US showed us, starkly, his patter and priorities for the next four years. Denying climate change, building walls, withdrawing basic healthcare, suppressing scientists and the free press, and peddling bare-faced lies on national television and social media … any one of these would have been enough to appall most of us. But all of them? In one week? Even the 4 million-plus women, men and children marching in protest throughout the US, London, and around the world could not completely dispel the sense of horror and, let’s be honest, fear that many are feeling at the moment.
The rise of ‘alternative facts’, which we used to call ‘lies’, leads to a deliberately unsettling space where we don’t know quite what to believe, or who to trust.
So this is where the Church comes in, surely? To stand up for truth, and justice at any cost; to make bold proclamations about inclusion, and equality, and how we will not tolerate those who bully, persecute, and dismiss the voices and needs of those who might be different from those in powerful positions.
I’d like to stand here and say that this morning. I really would. However, on Friday morning the House of Bishops released its long-awaited report on ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations’.
I feel bound to say that, as a priest in the Church of England, I stand here feeling ashamed, embarrassed, and – not for the first time – bitterly disappointed. This report was the culmination of two years of ‘Shared Conversations’, during which many LGBT Christians made themselves extremely vulnerable because they trusted in the assurance that this would lead to ‘good disagreement’, and was necessary to enable the Church to move beyond the destructive grid-lock in which it has been for many years. The report bears careful reading in full. But the ‘take-away’ message for many has been this: the Bishops have said this is all very difficult; they say it is important that the ‘tone’ around matters of sexuality and relationships changes; they say they recommend that there is absolutely no change, whatsoever, in Church law or doctrine to enable same-sex relationships to be affirmed and celebrated. Unfortunately, they do not explain how this change of ‘tone’ – where the Church becomes, apparently, more loving and welcoming towards LGBT people who wish to be in committed relationships – can be achieved without changing anything else at all.
We live in a world that feels increasingly unsafe for vast swathes of people. That the Church, too, feels unsafe for a significant minority is completely contrary to our understanding of the Gospel, that Jesus came so that we could have life in all its fullness. Few would dispute that fullness of life includes the God-given – God-imitating – ability to love and be loved in return. We cannot preach the good news about the centrality of love, then demand that many simply live without it.
In what appears a cruel irony for many, the Gospel passage set for today is about the Wedding at Cana, and the occurrence of Jesus’ first recorded miracle. Today of all days, we are asked to think about weddings. It’s a well-known story: Jesus and his disciples have been invited to a wedding, along with Jesus’ mother, Mary. Either insufficient wine was provided, or the guests were especially thirsty, which leads – horror of horrors – to the wine running out early. I was struck, on rereading this passage, by the fact that Mary notices that there’s a problem, and takes it upon herself to try to solve it. Running out of wine at a wedding would have been a source of deep shame to the couple, and their wider family. Mary doesn’t know exactly what to do to put this right, but she knows, instinctively, that Jesus will be able to help.
Sometimes, we are called to become more involved; to spot the need, like Mary did at that wedding, and endeavour to step up and help out. Here at the Cathedral, this Epiphanytide is our ‘Season of Gifts’; a time when we ask ourselves and one another about how and why we give to the Church. Giving, of course, comes in many guises, and financial giving, while imperative for our ministry here, is only one facet of how we can be challenged to use our giftedness in the service of the Gospel. My brief today is to talk about volunteering – how being generous with the gift of our time and our expertise – is equally important, and vital to our mission.
There are lots of jokes around the Church and volunteers – how you can’t pop into Evensong without being put on a rota or two – but we do try to avoid that here, allowing people to feel as involved or not as they wish. But even during this one service, if you look around you’ll notice how we just couldn’t do without our volunteers. They greet you as you enter. They help you with enquiries. They’ve already arranged beautiful flowers, and they’ll serve us at the altar and by reading and praying on behalf of us all. And, after this service, they’ll make you a cup of coffee, offer you a biscuit, and clear it all up afterwards. That’s just for one service. We are a busy, diverse, urban Cathedral – our volunteering opportunities are myriad and interesting. They involve being in full view, or operating behind the scenes; caring about this building and those who come here, or participating in a committee or project that requires very specific skills and experience. There is no one that has nothing to offer in the life of this Cathedral because, as our Gospel shows us, any action – however simple or mundane – can be transformed if we seek Jesus’ help and offer ourselves in love.
The account of Jesus turning water into wine is one of the most powerful in all the Gospels. It is an enduring image of transformation from poverty to riches, shame to acceptance; it demonstrates that, with Jesus, not only are all things possible, all things capable of being transformed to the good, but that we are always given more, always given better than we need or dared imagine. At Cana, the water doesn’t just become wine; it becomes the best wine, and more of it than could ever be used or required – those stone jars contained some 150 gallons of it. Similarly, at the altar, our very ordinary wine is transformed into the best wine, a tangible experience of the superabundance of God’s grace, which is the blood of the new covenant, Christ himself – who died so that we might experience life in all its fullness, the transformation of ourselves into the people God created us to be, living in freedom and love.
In the light of this Gospel of transformation, it is no wonder, then, that the Bishops’ Report feels so woefully inadequate. In its open response to the Report, the Board of the Lesbian and Gay Christian movement quoted Una Kroll, who said ‘we asked for bread, and you gave us a stone’; or, as we’ve seen in our Gospel this morning, Jesus offers us the wine of the kingdom, and the Church offers us the pharisaical waters of ritual purity. It feels like a complete reversal of the very Gospel we are supposed to enjoy, and proclaim, because it is not about accepting the fullness of life that Jesus offers; rather, it is about tricky ‘issues’ that have become too entrenched and politically charged.
But we are not ‘issues’. We are human beings. And gay or straight, we are all affected by this. As the recent events in the US are showing us with awful clarity, what demeans and diminishes one group, or even one person, demeans and diminishes us all. Because in the wedding banquet, we are all caught up together in one act of and response to love. It is not a party for individuals, but for the whole glorious company of God’s people, invited into the divine life of God who is always Trinity, always community, always bound up in the outward flow of self-emptying love from person to person.
At the end of this week that also saw Holocaust Memorial Day on Friday, it’s worth remembering the original statement written by the German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller, warning against the perils of apathy and avoidance, on which our opening quip was based:
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.
So yes, let me be clear that I am here today to ask you think about how you might give your time and your gifts in the service of this Cathedral. The time for apathy has passed, and it feels more urgent now than ever that we are the well-resourced, well-organized, well-connected community we have the potential to be. This is the only way we can fulfil our mission to grow in orthodox faith and radical love; to challenge those who exclude, and denigrate, and marginalize in the name of the Church, or the state, or whatever seeks to undermine the Gospel message that we believe we are called to proclaim.
We need you. We need one another. These ‘issues’ that represent real, actual women, men, families trying to live faithful and loving lives are not going to go away; nor are they going to be transformed without some hard thought, hard prayer, hard work. This Cathedral has long been a place standing firm for justice, inclusion, and equality, and never has our message been more vital than it is now. Let us, in our beautiful diversity, proclaim it loud and clear, far and wide, with compassion and strength: that all God’s children are precious, equal and wonderfully made.
So as we come forward in a while to receive the bread and drink the wine of the kingdom, let us pray for the grace to emulate God’s unstinting generosity as we respond to Jesus’ invitation to fullness of life – for us, and for all people.
source (includes a podcast)