Monday, July 16, 2012

Makes Me Want to Dance

Scripture for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost includes II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

What shall we do with these readings? I see what to do with our second reading, from Ephesians. But what’s to be learned from its bookends, two vignettes from the lives of two very different kings, one so renowned (David) that churches have him in their stained glass windows, the other (Herod) so vilified that (as was said of a particularly tyrannical Roman emperor), who would even name a dog after him?

Both of these action-packed episodes occur at royal occasions of celebration, though there’s a wide gulf between the momentous historic milestone of Israel’s installing the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem, and Herod’s pathetically vulgar birthday party.

At the first of these events, David shows his stuff, his moves. His ecstatic dancing suggests that the Spirit of God is in him. Enthusiasm rules: “en theous”, in God, inspired. But is this how heads of state are expected to behave? Well, this is not the House of Windsor. Nor is it in keeping with Hebrew expectation. This holy break-dancing is pure Canaanite fertility cult behavior, and it’s what you get when a shepherd is made a king, a king savvy enough to know how to impress the locals. That this story has been kept in the Hebrew Bible also says that Israel was quietly pleased that their new king could boogy.

At the other royal event, self-indulgence dominates. Herod is like a feral cat playing with a mouse, John the Baptist, whom Herod has kept alive because of a perverse sort of admiration: John has fearlessly confronted the corrupt king. John embodies the courage of holy convictions which Herod lacks. John claims to know what is good and true and Godly, all categories in which Herod is clueless.

In each story, there is an ice-cold moment, a stabbing sense of uh-oh. David has succeeded to the throne of his late father-in-law, Saul. Saul’s daughter, Michal, was David’s wife earlier in his career until a rift opened between the two men, and though Michal tried to remain devoted to David, Saul broke them up by giving her to one of his allies. It couldn’t have taken long for David to replace her in his affections, and, when Michal sees him doing his splits and twirls, she despises him, setting the stage for more pain to come.

That’s one uh-oh moment. The second, of course, is when Herod loses his control of the Baptizer’s fate by forgetting that two other feral cats are prowling his banquet hall. And when he goes overboard in his gratitude to his daughter Herodias (who also had some remarkable moves and was apparently the entertainer who sprang out of Herod’s birthday cake), when he promises her the sky, she puts a storm cloud in it. Prompted by Mummy Dearest, she asks for the assassination of her mother’s old enemy, John the Baptist, and Daddy, all caught up in pandering to his guests, obliges.

What do we do with these stories? Darned if I know—but they’re so dramatic! How can a preacher not at least nod to them in passing?

In passing to what? I have it in mind to make sure you know some of what happened last week, as the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention met in Indianapolis.

Here is where our second lesson is useful, with its insistence that the inheritance we have gained from God in Jesus Christ is graciously, freely, bestowed—and not to a few, but to all who welcome the embrace of Christ whose work is to gather up all things in himself.

So I’ll start with news that makes me want to dance: As of the first Sunday of Advent, same-gender couples may have their committed relationships blessed in the Episcopal Church.

It is how the Episcopal Church does things to first provide the words, the form, the liturgy by which a previously unrecognized pastoral need may be met, then make that pastoral care available to people who seek it. So not only a really splendid blessing rite, but also materials to help prepare couples, and teaching materials inviting all members into theological reflection were authorized by this General Convention.

Implementation of these provisions will be under the direction of the diocesan bishop, and will occur in parishes that choose to host blessing ceremonies, where they will be administered by clergy who choose to implement them. I so choose!

The resolution (which carried in the House of Deputies by 78% in the clergy order, and 76% in the lay order, and in the House of Bishops by a vote of 111 to 41) states that no one “should be coerced or penalized in any manner, nor suffer any canonical disabilities” for objecting to or supporting such blessings.

It is my hope that St. John’s will choose to host such pastoral care of same-gender couples as we now provide for heterosexual couples, seriously engaging the one, as we do the other, in careful spiritual preparation, focusing their attention not just on a ceremony to take place on one day, but on the resources they will need to fashion and support a lifelong, faithful, monogamous, joyful, fruitful and holy union.

At last week’s Vestry meeting, I proposed, and Vestry approved, forming a small team of Vestry members to work with me to offer opportunities this summer and fall for parishioners to examine more precisely what has been authorized, and to provide a respectful forum for parishioners to express where they are on this subject. I expect that our Vestry members’ participation in these gatherings will help guide them as they discern how St. John’s will choose, as that decision will be in their hands.

The Anglican Covenant, drafted over the past several years with the intention of defining and safeguarding the unity of the international Anglican Communion, and was designed to be ratified by the various national Anglican churches, hasn’t been received with much warmth in a number of countries, now including ours. We declined to take a position on it, but have chosen to remain in the international conversation in other ways.

Positive investment in the Palestinian Territories was overwhelmingly supported. While the Deputies urged vigorous and public corporate engagement with companies in the Church’s portfolio that contribute to the support of Israel’s occupation of the Territories, our Bishops pulled the plug on that.

A pilot student loan program was approved for seminarians who agree to devote three years of ministry in under-served areas of the Episcopal Church.

Convention directed the Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations to initiate dialogue between the Episcopal Church and the Mormon Church “for the… purposes of friendship, goodwill, mutual understanding” and in anticipation of our next General Convention to be held in Salt Lake City in 2015.

Approval was given to relocate the Episcopal Church Center, which has long been in Manhattan, though no new location was named and no authorization was given to sell the building at 815 Second Avenue.

And a Development Office for the Episcopal Church was created, to solicit major gifts and other grants (is this one of our last steps before we can claim to have entered the 21st century?).

While many other actions were taken, the last I’ll mention is Convention’s approval of new rites and prayers for the care of beloved animals, providing liturgies (for example) for times of transition, as when a companion animal dies or when a guide dog retires from service. When this resolution was debated in the House of Bishops, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, a former oceanographer, commented that she was glad to see that a prayer for whales has been included.

She, by the way, will complete her nine-year term at the next Convention, and a nominating committee was elected last week to prepare for the election of her successor to what is, for sure, a whale of a job.

In a closing press conference on Thursday, our Presiding Bishop gave a message that may sound a bit triumphalistic, but sure is good to hear: “The Episcopal Church is healthy, it’s becoming healthier, and it’s poised for an even more significant impact on the world around us. There’s no stopping us. Watch out, world. We’re coming.”