After the readings and sermon of each morning's General Convention Eucharist, we had a brief time for conversation at the tables where we had been randomly assigned. My table was number 141. One morning we were asked to remember a time when Jesus was especially present to you through the community of the church.
A woman who was there for the Triennial meeting of the Episcopal Church Women told of her experience of being trapped in a flash flood. Her home was severely damaged. Her husband and son held on to a slender tree only a few inches in diameter for nearly an hour while the water came up to their necks. She said her baby was nearly washed out of her arms. As she recalled that moment of terror, I noticed her eyes briefly dilate and her body jerked subtly. "It's a miracle that we all lived," she said. After they were cleared medically, she returned to the remains of their home, where people had already begun collecting her possessions, cleaning and salvaging them for her, and were starting the demolition and clean-up work necessary to begin rebuilding. They were people from her church and other churches, already there, caring for her before she could even care for herself.
An alternate deputy from Los Angeles told about his church's presence and support during his partner's illness from AIDS-related complications about fifteen years ago. He said his partner had pretty much given up on church, but when they were welcomed despite his illness, they spent his partner's final year embraced by the support and love of a caring congregation, and by the peaceful center of prayer and Eucharist that connected them with the support and love of a caring God.
For these friends, the presence of Jesus in the storm times of their lives was incarnate through the presence of their church community. I like those kinds of stories, but that's not always the way it happens. I've also heard so many stories of how a church failed to come through when needed or even added a layer of judgment or censure at a painful time. Sometimes it is very necessary to distinguish between the ever-present unconditional love of the God of Jesus Christ, and the sometimes-present occasionally conditional love of the church that is still seeking to grow into his likeness.
History shows that growing into the fulness of Christ is a stormy process, for individual Christians as well as for the corporate church body. As Paul says, we see through a mirror, dimly. Or as today's reading from Job speaks poetically of our human attempts to grow up, to do right and to be wise: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" What do we really know? So little. The best that human ingenuity, creativity and reason can produce is often the disorienting turbulence of conflictive waves colliding, jostling, shaking and rolling our storm tossed boat back and forth, up and down.
I lived in that boat being tossed by the conflictive waves of the affective values of our church's treasured relationship with the Anglican Communion on the one hand, and our embrace of the fruits of the Spirit manifestly present in our gay and lesbian members on the other hand. Our church tried to sail in those troubled waters during this past fortnight.
As we walked from one meeting to another, I remember saying to a friend something like this. "I know what I want. I want a church where both Kendall Harmon and Bonnie Perry can be treasured members who exercise the passion of their ministries and meet together at communion, reconciled to the God they both serve and the church they both love."
Kendall Harmon is a wonderful priest. We served together on a committee at the previous General Convention. He is a theologian. Passionate, articulate, utterly committed. He paces nervously, pensively across the back of the convention floor during debate. He is an outstanding spokesman for what could be called a conservative or traditionalist position. When I needed the best available references for our parish conversations last year, I called Kendall for recommendations and reprinted one of his articles as part of our reference material.
Bonnie Perry is a wonderful priest. She took a congregation which was on the brink of closing and lead it into becoming a vibrant, growing, energetic church that is reaching into their community in service and care. She is a pastor. Also passionate, articulate, utterly committed. She springs with bounding energy across the convention floor connecting, talking with others, raising questions. She was nominated, but not elected Bishop of California in their recent process, a closely watched election because she was one of three nominees who each lives in an open same-gender committed relationship. She is a gifted Christian leader. One day, God willing, she will be for some diocese an excellent bishop.
Kendall Harmon and Bonnie Perry are outstanding leaders in our church. Kendall Harmon and Bonnie Perry also make waves. At this General Convention Kendall wanted us to reverse completely the decisions we made at the previous convention, repent, and declare an absolute moratorium on further elections and consecrations of bishops who are in a committed same-gender relationship and an absolute moratorium on same-gender blessings until there is an Anglican consensus in favor of such things, which means, hopefully never. And Bonnie wanted us to reject any resolution that would limit the Holy Spirit's call on the ministry of leaders like her. Neither Kendall nor Bonnie were happy about the General Convention decisions. But both of them remain in the boat, committed to the church they love.
In our gospel story we hear the story of the fearful disciples, their boat being swamped by the wind and the waves. Jesus is there -- in the back of the boat, right near the tiller. He is so unanxious that he is sleeping peacefully right through the storm. When the disciples turn their attention away from the waves and wind and toward the quiet presence of Jesus with them, they hear his words spoken to the turbulence. "Peace! Be still! Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" And there is calm.
The church will be fine. How much harder must it have been for Paul, trying to coax a Jewish reform movement into including Gentiles. It took him years. We hear him speak in our reading today of "afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger." Imagine how conflicted it must have been in the 16th century with reformation in the air. And look what emerged out of that? Us. The Anglican Church and our own expression of that, The Episcopal Church.
How do we negotiate our ship in stormy times? A wise sailor is one who carefully observes the realities of the wind and waves, the powerful tides and the dangerous rocks. A wise sailor is one who commits to reality, dealing with the contending forces as they are. A wise sailor doesn't waste energy cursing the wind or challenging the waves as though they have no moral right to exist. Nor does a wise sailor simply ignore the weather, dismissing the clouds as distant and far-off, preferring instead to tidy-up the cabin where, we imagine, at least here I have a comfortable degree of control. A wise sailor works with the turbulence to keep the ship afloat and everyone safely aboard until there are calmer seas.
My boat is so small and the ocean is so big. We know so little. And sometimes the best that human ingenuity, creativity and reason can produce is the disorienting turbulence of conflicting waves colliding, jostling, shaking and rolling our storm tossed boat back and forth, up and down.
But beyond our knowing is the stillpoint of all creation. The presence of Christ, God with us, peacefully quiet in the midst of our anxieties. A woman whose house was flooded returns to where work has already begun to create her new home. A man whose partner was ill lives through death into resurrection and a full life in community for these fifteen years. Bonnie won't be in another bishop's election for at least the next three years, and Kendall will negotiate fiercely about how to be Episcopalian and Anglican. Winds and waves will come and go; storms will still to a whisper. Even in our doubt and anxiety and unknowing we will all strive to grow into the fulness of Christ. And beyond our knowing remains, the stillpoint of all creation, the presence of Christ, the unconditional love of God with us, peacefully quiet in the midst of our anxieties, who rises up when the need is greatest and says, "Peace! Be still! Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"