General Convention: a good shepherd
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Our readings today speak of sheep and shepherds, a metaphor that has been used for 3,000 years for the church and her leaders, for Israel and the prophets, for Christ and God. There are good shepherds and bad shepherds, shepherds who scatter and destroy, shepherds who feed and anoint, gather and love.
In the gospel we just heard, Jesus looks around at the huge crowds around him like sheep without a shepherd. They recognize Jesus’ power, his love and wisdom. So they flock to him, press upon him, and follow him and his disciples, even to the quiet places they go to try to get away for a little peace and quiet. Jesus has compassion on them and heals them. It is a scene of great need and great response.
The crowds are still there. There is still great need and we, as a church, have the ability to respond with compassion. People still have a great God-shaped hole in their lives, people are still like sheep without a shepherd, people still need healing, and when you offer it, they respond.
Last week I attended the General Convention of our church for a few days. I was struck, as I always am there, by the way in which we, as a church, can be shepherds to the world around us. General Convention not only is the primary legislative gathering where are the big decisions are made about our church; it is the place where people doing ministries can display what they do, make reports, seek funding, and network with others.
It is a dazzling experience. Christian vegetarians, monks, malaria programs in Africa, young adult advocates for justice, Guatemalan and Haitian fair trade products, you name it; the exhibit halls burst with the people of the world, their needs and our response. There are international guests from all over. The worship features African American gospel choirs, Spanish music, Native American dancers, and video images of the earth and its people, in all its suffering and beauty. It is like being with Jesus, surrounded by the whole world; no, it is being with Jesus in the world.
General Convention did several things, as it always does, to respond to the world with compassion and healing. They began a major new initiative that will do what we are starting this fall – reaching out to 2nd and 3rd generation Hispanics, and beyond, to offer a truly bilingual, bicultural ministry. Recognizing that we are fast becoming a bicultural nation, with every 5th child today speaking Spanish, knowing that not all of them are happy in the church tradition in which they were raised, we offer to these vast crowds what we have as the Episcopal Church, which is so much. We can offer these sheep without a shepherd real compassion and healing. I hope to tie in what we’re starting up here with Fr. Daniel together with this initiative, and perhaps access some funding, while we’re at it.
General Convention re-committed to funding many programs that partner with our brother and sister Anglicans in the third world, especially in Africa, to help combat malaria, AIDS, and hunger. The millions who flock to Anglican churches there find compassion and healing in their worship and in their social programs, which is made possible partly by the Episcopal Church.
But there is one kind of sheep that General Convention had compassion on and reached out to more obviously than others, especially if you pay attention to the media. It is gay and lesbian people. Sitting in our pews and surrounding us in our world are millions of people who have suffered much in their lives simply because they were born with a natural attraction to others of their gender. In this way, they are like left-handed people. And because of their difference, they have – some of you have - been condemned, excluded, told to repent, kicked out of families and churches, and killed. Truly like sheep without a shepherd, they have no spiritual home.
At General Convention, we acted like a good shepherd and reached out to these hungry crowds of gay and lesbian people and said to them “you belong here. You are safe here, and we want you at every level of our church life.”
Here’s what we did. In one resolution, we asserted that God calls gay and lesbian people to every ordained position, including that of bishop; and that we will discern those calls according to our own canons. In doing this, we moved past a controversial compromise of 3 years ago, when we told the Anglican Communion that we would observe a moratorium on ordaining as a bishop any person that might cause difficulty for more traditional Anglicans. This will no doubt cause a few more to depart, and it will raise yet more loud voices of protest from other Anglicans.
In a second resolution, we began the process towards authorizing the blessing of same-gender holy unions. The Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music, together with the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops, will collect and develop theological resources and liturgies for this purpose, to be presented 3 years from now to the next General Convention. This train has left the station, and there is no going back. Before long, we will have authorized rites for the whole church, not just in isolated places where bishops choose to allow it.
In both these actions, the Episcopal Church was a compassionate shepherd, looking out at the flocks of gay and lesbian people, looking out at the millions whose sons and daughters and best friends are gay, looking out at a modern and youthful world that does not believe that there is anything disordered or wrong about being naturally attracted to one’s own gender, and said healing words to these crowds: “You belong here. We want you at every level of church life.”
How was this possible to make what was, for us, an historic leap forward? Well, the loudest voices, what turned out to be a small minority, have departed. They have decided that they cannot live with the direction we are taking as a church. With their departure, the atmosphere of rancor and fear has dissipated. The debate was lively but calm. We were able to move ahead. The votes came out 3 to 1 in favor of these actions. We are moving forward, unafraid, saying to the world “this is who we are, as Episcopalians,” willing to take the heat, believing that when we do the right thing by God’s people, it doesn’t matter what the consequences are.
For many of us this is an historic time akin to milestones in the Civil Rights movement. Because we understand that same-gender attraction is a part of one’s identity, then if we were to continue to bar gays and lesbians from marriage or ordination, it would be the same thing as opposing interracial marriage or minorities in positions of leadership.
I thank God we’re finally turning the corner and getting past this. It’s about time. Our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters – right here in this parish – have suffered too long. The millions of gays and lesbians in our society have been like sheep without a shepherd for too long. It is time to say the healing words of love and compassion: that your relationships of love are as holy, as godly, as any other.
The Episcopal Church has so much to offer, and the needs of the world are so great. St. Michael’s has so much to offer, and the needs of our neighborhood, of our city are so great. There are thousands around us who are like sheep without a shepherd. We do our best to have compassion, and in doing so, we re-live what Jesus and his disciples did.
We give people food every week through Casa San Miguel, our Food Pantry. This fall in our 5pm Sunday bilingual liturgy we will say to traditional Hispanic New Mexicans who have left their church of origin “you have a home here; we welcome you in every level of our church.” We support third-world cooperatives with coffee and many other products. We offer a place for skeptical seekers to question their faith, seekers whose questions are not welcome in many other churches. We offer a monthly mass with devotional chanting and meditation for people who will never come on a Sunday. We have opened our doors and our hearts to gay and lesbian people who are excluded from other church communities.
The sheep who surround us on every side, who sometimes press upon us looking for healing, who want to see what we have to offer – they come to us as we make ourselves known, as you invite your friends to come and see, as we live out who we are. As we offer our compassion, we are Christ the Good Shepherd to them, and they are Christ to us.
So today we have hung the Episcopal Church flag in our narthex, and we give thanks for this new day in our church. And we give thanks for the opportunity to be good shepherds, to participate in Christ’s healing ministry of compassion.