25 March 2007
The sandstorms reached a mile into the sky: a brown wall of sand and dust, roaring along faster than a chariot, engulfing everything in their fury. Every time one struck, they remembered their own land, tucked against the shining jewel of the Mediterranean, its snow-capped peaks melting into lush valleys green with wheat and grapes hanging low and plump. They had learned to speak the language of these people who had carted them off after burning Solomon’s magnificent golden Temple and razing their beloved Jerusalem to the ground. They spoke the language, yes, and some of them had started new lives along the Tigris or the Euphrates where they had become merchants, bankers or members of the local ruling elite. But then, the wind would howl, and a billion billions grains of sand would cover them with a choking reminder that this was not their home, this was a long, long way from the land of milk and honey.
The children of Israel were a people formed by water: the great Patriarch Noah, sailing his Ark to the height of Mt. Ararat, Abraham digging a well named Beersheba, Moses, plucked from the reeds of the Nile, the Red Sea parted, the Jordan’s flow stopped. They’d seen rocks crack and streams pour out, they’d seen Elijah cover an altar with water and watched as Yahweh’s own tongue of fire lapped it up. They’d seen Elisha sweeten the spring of Jericho, which watered great groves of date palms. Water was the very essence of their culture, but they found themselves a people captive to the desert sand.
They longed in their desert captivity for a new Red Sea to cross, a new Jordan to ford. But all they got was sand in their eyes and a God with a new thing to do, if only they could see it.
Twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostles and elders gathered in Jerusalem to hear from two young men who had traveled from Syria to tell them why Gentiles didn’t have to become Jews to find salvation. God was doing a new thing.
In 1387, an Oxford Doctor of Divinity finished the first translation of the Bible into English. John Wycliffe was determined that every plowboy, housewife, merchant and artisan in England could read the Bible in their native tongue. God was doing a new thing.
On the eve of All Saints in 1517, a young priest strode to the large wooden door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, and took a hammer out from under his habit. Martin Luther nailed a tract outlining 95 reasons that the Roman Church was hopelessly screwed up. God was doing a new thing.
In 1549, the Archbishop of Canterbury put the final touches on an English version of the canon of the mass. Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer was born, and God was doing a new thing.
On January 31, 1807, a British MP published A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade and two hundred years ago today, William Wilberforce led the British Empire to abolish the buying and selling of humans. God was doing a new thing.
On July 29, 1974, at the Church of the Advocate, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, eleven women knelt before three retired bishops to be ordained to the priesthood. Through the Philadelphia Eleven, God was doing a new thing.
On February 11, 1989, a fifty-nine year old African American woman, who had never been to seminary, was consecrated Bishop of the Diocese of the Massachusetts. Barabara Harris was the first female Bishop in the Anglican Communion. God was doing a new thing.
On November 2, 2003, in Manchester, New Hampshire, 4000 people watched as Gene Robinson was consecrated Bishop of New Hampshire. Somebody was doing a new thing, that was for sure, but a lot of people wondered out loud if it was God.
Last month, gathered in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the Primates of the Anglican Communion said, no. This may be a new thing, but it is not of God. They told the American Church to go back home and undo the new thing and do a new thing of the Primate’s own.
So this week, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church went on retreat at Camp Allen, Texas to ask God if there really was a new thing being done in their midst. They had prayed over this, wrestled with it, cried themselves to sleep over it, and still they couldn’t see it. It was like a water-born people being lost in a desert. When they got up from their knees, they hugged each other and said, “Yes, indeed, God is doing a new thing, but it’s not the new thing the Primates have in mind.”
What the Primates had in mind was really an old thing, where an unaccountable Magesterium of prelates would rule ex cathedra and proclaim itself infallible. Where priests and bishops and popes would declare what you had to believe to be saved, where righteousness is defined, not by faith in Christ, but by law.
The House of Bishops said to the Primates, the Holy Spirit has moved us to regard all our self-confident Anglicanism as loss because of Christ, because we found in him, not any righteousness of our own that comes from law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. They knew there was only one thing to do when you’re lost in the desert a long way from home: forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
They knew they are likely lose some old things in the process: a place at a castle in Old England, seats of honor at Anglican councils, power, prestige and privilege. They considered it all rubbish. They said they “believe that the leaders of the Church must always hold basic human rights and the dignity of every human being as fundamental concerns in our witness for Christ.” They were, therefore, concerned that while the Primates were focused on homosexuality, they were ignoring “the pressing issues of violence against gay and lesbian people around the world, and the criminalization of homosexual behavior in many nations of the world.”
There are scribes and chief priests who are unhappy about the House of Bishops and their response and declare through clenched teeth: “Heaven forbid!” And the House of Bishops said, well, if God’s new thing means that others reject us and communion with us, then we must with great regret and sorrow accept their decision.
The House of Bishops reminded us this week that communion, koinonia, is not something which can be legislated by Church councils. It is a new thing, performed by God, if only we can see it. Communion exists, not because of a shared political or religious history, or of the dried-up relic of a long-dead empire, but because of a shared Savior and Lord, a shared faith, a shared cup, a shared righteousness that comes from God.
You can reject it, stumble over it, or let it crush you. You can yell, “Heaven Forbid!” while wearing the finest silk vestments, and brandishing golden crosiers. But you can’t stop a new thing of God, or order it to be something else.
When the Hebrews went back to Israel after seventy years in the Babylonian desert, there were no seas that parted, no rivers that stopped their flow. But their hearts were light and they sang a new song of praise, dancing all the way home. As they passed the jackals and the ostriches danced and sang with them. Because when God sets about to do new thing, there’s going to be water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, and drinks for all God’s people, the people formed to declare God’s praise.
Like the Hebrews, by the rivers of Babylon, it is time for us to sing a new song. It is time to go back home, to leave the land of exile, to grab the paw of a jackal and the tail feather of an ostrich and whirl about on the new way out of the wilderness. For God is doing a new thing.