Sermon – June 2, 2019 – Seventh Week in Eastertide
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: John 17:20-26
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
There has been some drama in our worldwide Anglican Communion for awhile now, but particularly over the past few months. (And just a quick primer for all of you relatively new to this tradition: St. Luke’s belongs to the Episcopal Church, the Church in North America which is part of the Anglican Communion, which is a body of churches all around the world who gather and worship in the Anglican tradition, or the tradition that grew from—let’s be honest—the colonialism of the British Empire and the Church of England.)
Anyways, the drama is centered around the Lambeth Conference, a gathering of all the bishops from all the different churches around the world. They come together to discuss issues and challenges of the day and just the overall state of the Church (capital C) and its well-being.
The conference only happens every ten years. It’s kind of a big deal.
For next year’s conference, all the bishop’s spouses were invited—except same-sex spouses. They were very conspicuously not invited. Queer bishops could come, but not their spouses. There was an uproar. The bishops of our Episcopal Church, including our bishop Michael Hanley, weighed publically whether they should go or not. Most decided they would in order to be a voice of support for queer folks in the Church.
And then last week, a group of conservative bishops in Africa announced they would not attend the Lambeth Conference because of the inclusion of the queer bishops.
This is the state of our Anglican “Communion.”
Communion is what Jesus is praying for in our Gospel today. If you split communion into its Latin roots, you get “com”, which means “with”, and unus, which means “oneness.” With oneness. Communion. Or, even more simply, unity. Oneness.
“The glory you have given me,” he prays to God, “I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” As Jesus is unified with God, he prays that we may all be unified, literally made one, with each other.
But unity is a tricky thing, as our bishops know.
If we’re being really honest, when we talk about unity, so often what we’re actually talking about is conformity. And when we’re talking about conformity, what we’re actually talking about is power.
In the past, the bishops at the Lambeth Conference have reflected this kind of conformity as unity. In 1948, the vast majority of bishops were white, even those representing non-white dioceses in Asia, Africa, and Polynesia. All of them were men. No female bishop attended Lambeth until 1998—because it wasn’t until 1989 that the Anglican Communion consecrated its first female bishop. A gay bishop—well, at least an out gay bishop—has yet to attend.
It’s easy to feel like there’s unity when everyone shares a similar experience of the world, a similar perspective. But when we adopt conformity as unity, someone gets to decide what it is we’re conforming to. That’s power.
It was easy to unify as bishops so long as they were mostly white. So long as they were mostly men. So long as they were, well, all heterosexual.
We can unify as Americans—so long as we came here legally. So long as we speak English and speak it “properly”. So long as we’re Christian. So long as we’re conforming to accepted norms of gender.
When we all agree to these certain ideals, then the people who disrupt those ideals are the ones who are being divisive. We would be fine if they would stop making it about race. We could accept them if they would just stop wearing their hijabs in public.
As if those ideals we were gathering around were not inherently divisive. As if the unity we’ve agreed upon didn’t come at the cost of someone else’s way of being. As if this unity was not propping up power for certain people.
But I don’t think that’s the kind of unity Jesus is praying for. “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
So that the love with which you have loved me may be in them.
It seems pretty clear to me what Jesus is praying we unify around.
Love. Authentic love. If peace is about knowing you belong, in all your difference, like we talked about last week, then love is about creating that kind of belonging for others. And authentic love can be very, very hard.
Because authentic love, the kind of love Jesus gave, requires that we open ourselves to really seeing another person, to really seeing everything that makes them who they are. Skin color. Gender. Sexual orientation. Our past. Our financial situation. Our mental health. All of these things—and more—shape who we are and how we experience the world.
To love authentically is to love because of those things—not in spite of them.
To say something like “I don’t see color” or “it doesn’t matter who you love” is to say “I decline to see and acknowledge part of who you are and how you experience the world.”
That’s not how Jesus loved.
In a world that devalued women and their experience, Jesus invited them to his table. Jesus healed at the request of a Roman Centurion who was actively participating in the oppression of his people. Jesus invited the reviled tax collector to follow him.
There was no precondition, no rules about gender or belief, no assessment about whether a person deserved it or not. When it came to his love expressed in healing, feeding, and teaching, Jesus opened himself to all of who the other person was.
All of us have loved and have been loved in deep ways, and so we all know how hard it can be. From different ways of doing the dishes or folding the laundry to different political or moral or religious beliefs, wholly loving another person requires work, compromise, communication.
It also requires the courage to say when you’ve been hurt and to really listen when another person says they’ve been hurt by you. If authentic love is really seeing a person as they are, it sometimes means that you are seeing a person when they’re not at their best. When they’re not able to love in a healthy or safe way, authentic love means drawing a boundary.
I often had to do this when I was serving as a chaplain to people who were unhoused in San Francisco. One day a person might be lovely, and the next they might be high or having a manic episode, and I’d have to say to them, “It looks like you’re not able to love me as I am right now, and I’m not sure I’m able to do that for you, either. Let’s step away and try again tomorrow. Or next week.”
One time a man I usually loved talking to approached me and started violently yelling at me in the street because he had been drinking too much. I was shaken up. I was afraid of him. But I agreed to keep meeting with him after he found me when he was sober to apologize. He said it wouldn’t happen again. But it did. And I stopped meeting with him.
He was homeless. Depressed. Alone. I knew him well. I cared about him. But to stay in that pastoral relationship would be to say that his behavior was okay. That I was willing to accept abuse.
I loved him—and myself—too much too much to let that happen.
And sometimes authentic love means stepping away from a person for good. We don’t always like to acknowledge it, but sometimes distance is the only way we can offer authentic love to certain people.
If loving each other as individuals is this hard, imagine translating this kind of love across a community, a city, a country. It’s a struggle that’s very present for us right now. In the midst of deep divisions and acts of dehumanization on a huge scale, we are called to a deeper unity: the unity of authentic love.
I don’t mean to harp on the challenging parts of love. It’s just that the easy parts are, well, easy. Jesus said, “‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” When things are good, and authentic love comes easy, praise God. But we need—I need—the extra care and practice and prayer for when things are hard.
We are all humans who sin. We’re doing the best we can, which isn’t always great. But here’s the good news: Jesus is praying for us.
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” Across time and from the beginning of an age, Jesus has been praying for us, giving us hope and courage and strength to do the work of his love in the world until we are all one.