Last Sunday was a very important moment in the life of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. It was the day of our Annual Parish Meeting, which is a time to worship together and reflect on our place in this world as followers of Jesus Christ. As I have stated elsewhere under extremely different circumstances:
Love . . . became the thread that made a connection between all of us. It brought to mind the opening words of a beautiful antiphon that I didn’t quote in my remarks but have contemplated a lot: “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est,” which means, “Where charity and love are, God is there.”
This I believe. With that in mind, here are the words that I spoke from the pulpit, with information about the celebration and blessing of same-gender marriages, which the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, has since granted his permission to conduct at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church:
THE RECTOR’S REPORT
DELIVERED AS THE SERMON ON JANUARY 17, 2016
Today’s sermon is actually my report as the Rector of Palmer Memorial on the day of our Annual Parish Meeting. There comes a time when the new Rector becomes simply the Rector. I think it’s safe to say that at some point over this past year, we crossed that invisible line. To quote the words of Peter to Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew in the stained glass window above Palmer’s altar:
Lord, it is good for us to be here.
Of course, his words were spoken on the Mount of Transfiguration, and those who remember that story will surely remember that Peter and the others didn’t stay there on the mountaintop but went down into the valley and set their faces toward Jerusalem. They have an indescribable experience in the presence of Jesus, a glimpse of divine glory, then walk with Jesus through the world, not as they wish it to be but as it really is. That’s exactly what happens here at Palmer.
In a variety of ways, people encounter beauty in this church — in the building itself, in the art that surrounds us here, in liturgy and music, in friendships with deep roots, in the simple act of receiving together bread and wine made holy food by the promise of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s not a beauty, however, that comes from the perfection either of who we are or of what we bring to offer. To believe that to be true would be a form of idolatry. Whenever perfection becomes an end in itself, especially in the name of God, people are inevitably hurt because human beings, as it turns out, are imperfect 100% of the time.
As Lutheran pastor and writer Nadia Bolz-Weber would say about her admittedly quirky congregation in Denver — The House for All Sinners and Saints — community is more important than perfection. Such beauty found together inside these walls, surrounded by crying babies and restless children and doubters and seekers and the unloved and the unloveable and those of us who are simply a mess, is a reflection of the God in whom we believe. We’re able to love one another because God loved us while we were still sinners. Without that love, all the rest of the things we do here are meaningless, “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” as Paul would write in his letter to Christians in the City of Corinth.
Just a few minutes ago, we heard other words read to us from Paul in that same letter. Describing a kaleidoscope of spiritual gifts, he assures those disagreeable Corinthians that “it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” I like what the late Baptist preacher Fred Craddock said about these gifts, which none of us created or possess alone. In a sermon about this passage from First Corinthians, he wrote:
Some years ago someone broke into the church, pried open the door to the room where the vocabulary is kept, and stole one of the richest words the Christian community possessed. The word was charisma. It was peddled on the street and soon came to be used by everybody for everything: an exciting personality, a particular hairstyle, photogenic face, stimulating speech, provocative style of leadership. The word is a form of charis, grace, from which we get eucharist, and is the background word for charity. Charisma is a gift, and it is Paul’s insistence that when we talk of these matters, we call them what they are — gifts of God. Apart from that association with God and grace, we might as well be discussing magic and horoscopes.
And the word for Paul is plural, charismata; there are varieties of gifts. By its repetition it can be assumed that diversity of gifts is Paul’s insistence.
In other words, we need one another, not in spite of but because of all of our God-given differences. Only together are we a community that can be called the Body of Christ. That image of the human body, with its many and varied parts, is the metaphor Paul will use next in his letter, reminding the Corinthians and us that “we were all baptized into one body” and that “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” That’s easier said than done, of course, in the cultural landscape that surrounds us. But we belong to another kingdom, a heavenly country where God’s love reigns eternally.
Palmer is where we learn the grammar of that love, practicing it imperfectly and making mistakes, receiving not only forgiveness but also renewed strength for the journey. Over the past year, others have joined us on this pilgrimage. Indeed, the very word Palmer has referred historically to someone who had returned from the Holy Land with a palm frond or leaf as a sign of having undertaken a pilgrimage. Two of those new Palmers who are walking beside us are new faces on our church staff — the Rev. Alex Easley, our Curate, and Roger Hutchison, our Director of Christian Formation and Parish Life.
Alex was appointed by Bishop Andy Doyle of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas to serve our congregation as a curate for a period of two years. Last summer she was ordained as a transitional deacon at Christ Church Cathedral. Since then, many of you have gotten to know Alex through her work here in the areas of pastoral care, outreach, young adults, and youth. God willing, this Wednesday, January 20, Alex will be ordained to the priesthood at Palmer by Bishop Doyle. And you are all invited to that ordination service, which will begin at 6:30 p.m. and be followed by a festive reception.
Roger I’ve known for nearly 20 years. He came to Palmer after serving for 17 years on the staff of Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina. As most of you know, Roger shapes Christian faith in the lives of young people and adults not only through stories and conversations but also through art. He’s the author of The Painting Table: A Journal of Loss and Joy and of another recently published book called Under the Fig Tree: Visual Prayers and Poems for Lent.
A week from this Wednesday, January 27, Roger and I will begin leading an evening series called Painting the Psalms. We’ll take a look at a selection of psalms, with me focusing on the poetry and theology while Roger leads us in an artistic response to that. More details about all of that will be forthcoming, and I hope you’ll join us.
This past year a group of Palmers, including me, were invited to a friendship dinner during Ramadan at the Turquoise Center in Houston to learn about the Turkish culture and Muslim faith of their members. We returned the favor, something that, quite frankly, doesn’t often happen, inviting them to a presentation in our church about our Christian faith. I talked with them about how that faith affects the way we look at the world after we are sent out from here in the name of Christ.
This past year, as they have done so before, a lot of folks from our congregation also supported the work of an organization called Kids4Peace. It brings together Jewish, Christian, and Muslim youth from the Holy Land for a summer camp experience in various locations throughout the United States, including Camp Allen, which is the camp and conference center for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. Palmer’s own Stuart Kensinger is a member of our Vestry and a major supporter of Kids4Peace. As Stuart will tell you, participating in these kinds of interfaith conversations does not dilute one’s Christian identity but rather deepens it and brings it into focus. You have to bring your whole self to the table and be clear about who you are as a follower of Jesus Christ. And you can do that while building friendships across the boundaries of your own faith as a Christian. I think Palmers can be role models for this.
In fact, you can practice this today. Joining us at this service are Jewish, Christian, and Muslim participants in an interfaith program called Building Abrahamic Partnerships. This series of classes, led by Professor Yehezkel Landau of Hartford Seminary, began last Tuesday at the Turquoise Center and concludes this afternoon here at Palmer with a meal together and a final discussion in St. Bede’s Chapel.
As most of you probably know, welcoming refugees and helping them resettle in the City of Houston has long been a part of the work of this congregation. Last spring, Palmer completed the more than one year co-sponsorship of the resettlement of an Eritrean mother and child. Soon we will begin the co-sponsorship of a refugee family from the Congo. You’ll have the opportunity, as always, to share in this important ministry. So look for announcements that invite you to become involved in this holy work in the weeks and months ahead.
That begins today, in fact, for the children and youth who will gather in Holy Cross Chapel during our Annual Parish Meeting. They will be decorating fabric squares that will be made into a quilt and presented as a gift to a refugee family.
Last but not least, most of you will recall that I announced in my report last year that I would appoint members to three task forces to look at three important areas of our life together. The first was a Youth Task Force, led by our Junior Warden, Courtney Daniell-Knapp, which facilitated a diocesan assessment of our youth programs. The members of this task force are continuing to support Roger Hutchison in his first year of ministry at Palmer, and they are also working together with Roger to define the best leadership model for our youth programs going forward.
The second was a Mission-Beyond-Our-Walls or Outreach Task Force, led by Bill Kersten, which has been studying and reflecting on the numerous opportunities that we have as a church to connect with the neighborhoods that surround us. The continuing work of this task force is especially important because of the transition that happened at the end of the summer with the closing of the Way Station, our outreach to the homeless for more than 24 years, which included serving breakfast on this campus to our clients during the workweek. We are now working in partnership with the Star of Hope Mission, which has supported the homeless with transformational programs for more than a century in the City of Houston.
You can expect to receive a survey from this task force in the near future. You will also be invited to participate in something that I’m very excited about this spring — a day of service when Palmers worship together at a service like this in the Season of Easter before being sent to be the church out in the community. There will be all sorts of opportunities that you can sign up for beforehand from serving meals to the homeless to singing for the residents of nursing homes, making cakes for families in shelters, or perhaps going with a eucharistic visitor to bring communion to someone who can’t be with us here. Folks, of course, will also be able to choose to participate in an activity even if they didn’t sign up beforehand.
I’m really excited to see what might happen that afternoon. All of these kinds of things are about overcoming estrangement and isolation and are, therefore, a reflection of the reconciliation that the gospel brings to a broken world.
The third group that I appointed was a Unity in Mission Task Force. Unity in Mission: A Bond of Peace for the Sake of Love is the name of a paper that was written by Bishop Andy Doyle and includes opening remarks by former Secretary of State James Baker III. First published in 2012 to address the pastoral and theological issue of the blessing of same-gender relationships, it was revised in 2015 to address the blessing of same-gender marriages.
Palmer’s Unity in Mission Task Force, led by John Wallace, also included Jeanine Baker, Debbie Brassfield, Hal Gordon, Matt Kent, Allison Marek, Elizabeth Maynard, and Patrick Sermas. These sisters and brothers in Christ were asked to follow the guidelines set forth by Bishop Doyle in his revised Unity in Mission Policy for congregations that are considering the blessing of same-gender marriages.
The Unity in Mission Task Force spent the last six months in discernment together, studying materials with a variety of perspectives on the nature of marriage, receiving feedback from parishioners both as individuals and in small group discussions, creating helpful resources to share with the congregation, and praying with one another. That process convinced the members of the task force of three things that are noted in their report: “Reasonable people can hold differing good-faith views about this issue; this is not an ultimate issue; and no matter where an individual Palmer stands on this issue, we can move forward together in the bonds of grace, love, and mercy.”
That report continues with a unanimous recommendation:
. . . to the Rector and Vestry that Palmer embrace the celebration of same-gender marriages.
Last Thursday, I presented that report and recommendation to the members of the Vestry. What followed was a thoughtful discussion about what this would mean for Palmer, the importance of caring for everyone who sits in these pews, including those who disagree with us, and whether the Vestry should vote to affirm this, even though the guidelines from Bishop Doyle only require that the Vestry intend to support the Rector in the implementation of these liturgies. After that important discussion, Palmer’s Vestry did vote to affirm the task force’s recommendation.
Last Friday, as required in his revised Unity in Mission Policy, Bishop Doyle received separate letters about all of this from me as the Rector and from Tim Driggers as our Senior Warden. He also received copies of the report from the task force and of the resources that were created to supplement it. The decision to move forward with this will not become official until Bishop Doyle has approved it.
Those letters, the report of the task force, and its accompanying resources will be made available electronically on the church website this week and in printed copies both in the church office this week and after worship services next Sunday. When those documents become available to you, I strongly encourage you to read them in their entirety. I’ll later suggest additional materials that may also be helpful to you.
As I stated to you last year, your priests have been called to care for everyone in this community of faith in the name of Christ, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Pending the Bishop’s approval, that statement of mine can now be further clarified to include responding pastorally within the walls of this church to same-gender couples that desire boundaries of publicly declared faithfulness in marriage. I can assure you that it also embraces those who disagree with this. I want to state that clearly this morning. We will care for everyone in the name of Christ.
It seems obvious to me that our community here at Palmer cares deeply about the institution of marriage, that we genuinely desire to support one another in the commitments that healthy relationships require, and that we are willing to love those who sit beside us in the pews as sisters and brothers in Christ. I was pleased, therefore, by the additional recommendation of the task force “that Palmer create a system for strengthening and supporting marriages.” As the report goes on to state:
Marriage itself, as a secular institution and as a spiritual sacrament, is losing ground. It behooves all of us who believe in the fidelity of relationships — as icons of God’s fidelity in relationship with us and as laboratories for human growth in love — to support each other in that daily walk.
To that, I say, “Amen, amen, and amen.”
I believe the spiritual gifts needed to provide that strength and support are already here, not because we are perfect, but because we are present to each other in a community that seeks, in the words of our mission statement, “to know and share the love of Jesus Christ.” It is in Christ that we find our unity, that everyone in our church family is loved, and that our community of faith will truly become, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “a house of prayer for all people.”
One of the hallmarks of our congregation has been the ability to disagree openly, lovingly, and vigorously about all sorts of things, while still holding hands, so to speak, around the Lord’s Table. That’s a gift we can share joyfully with the whole world, as we come together to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” today.
1 BACK TO POST Matthew 17:14.
2 BACK TO POST I Corinthians 13:1.
3 BACK TO POST I Corinthians 12:6-7.
4 BACK TO POST Fred B. Craddock, “From Exegesis to Sermon: 1 Corinthians 12:4-6,” Review and Expositor, volume 80, number 3 (Summer 1983) 423.
5 BACK TO POST I Corinthians 12:13, 21.
6 BACK TO POST Isaiah 56:7, as phrased in Noah Webster’s 1833 limited revision of the King James Version of the Bible.
7 BACK TO POST Psalm 29:2 (1979 Book of Common Prayer translation).