Witness Justice

Gospel of John 2:1-11; “The Wedding at Cana”

Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 17, 2016

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul in Newton Highlands, MA

The Rev’d Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw


This gospel passage is one of my long time favorite biblical passages. Not only because I have always believed in a God who can and is willing to keep the party rolling, but also because this passage introduces us to Jesus’ ministry with the story of God’s absolute power of transformation. This story appears only in the Gospel of John, and it is the account of Jesus’ first miracle. It is the beginning of his public ministry. It is the point at which his disciples begin to see who Jesus really is, and, as the passage says, to “believe” in him. I love that this inaugural event happens in a setting of joy and celebration. It’s a wedding, after all. Our first glimpse of the power and the glory that embodies this Son of God is through a gift of joie de vivre. How great is that! How much fun is God? And what a great reminder that transformation can happen in the least likely places and in the least likely ways.

And, holy cow, what we need in this violent, unjust, warming world, more than ever, is transformation. Maybe for some of us, on many levels of our existence. Personally or relationally. But absolutely institutionally. And, most of all, culturally. We could use some deep institutional and cultural change toward kindness and compassion and mercy and justice. Yes, institutional and cultural transformation is what we need, as Jesus transformed the water into wine, utterly changing its constitution and its purpose. Although actually, maybe what we need is to change this wine back into water.

Today is the feast of Saint Anthony who, in the 3rd century of the common era, defined the nature of monastic spirituality; a transforming spirituality that was grounded in prayer and solitude and asceticism; a rejection of the violence and greed and self-indulgence of the wider world. He was among the few of us who actually followed, to the letter, Jesus’ problematic invitation to sell everything we have, give the proceeds to those who need them, and follow God. When Anthony encountered these words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, he sold his entire inheritance, he shed his power and privilege, and he spent the rest of his life in a cave or in the desert prayer and fasting in solitude. A journey supported by rigorous manual labor; slowly but surely turning the fine wine that was his privileged life back into the living water that reflected God’s image. It was a transformation of divine proportions. It was slow. But it was steadfast. Over the course of years, decades, Anthony became what he had always been. He died at the very ripe old age of 105. And today we celebrate his life’s work and ministry, a superb example of transformation….of returning wine to water, and of patience….because unlike the wine in those jars in this morning’s Gospel, most transformation takes time.

Tomorrow we celebrate the life’s work and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister, committed body, mind and spirit to the non-violent transformation of the social, economic and political structures of society, that all might be equal in the eyes of both God and human law. He was martyred by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968.

The vision of the church has always been energized by martyrs, those who are willing to sacrifice unto death for God’s dream. In the 2nd century, Tertullian wrote that: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” In those days of the early church, Christian martyrdom was venerated as the highest form of faithful living; it was baptism in the blood. We don’t talk much about martyrs in this day and age. Except on this weekend, and unless of course we are complaining about someone whom we feel is feigning persecution as tool of manipulation. Oh, she’s such a martyr!

But in the history of our Christian tradition, the role of the martyr, the one who was willing to sacrifice his/her life in order to stand up for God; in order to live into the integrity of God’s love, those folks were thought to be true agents of Christian conversion, the truest agents of transformation. Martyrs were the ones who, with an unwavering commitment to the truth, as they saw it, were faithful enough, courageous enough to show the way to the rest of the flock.

Which makes perfect sense etymologically speaking, because the Greek word martyr in English means witness. Witness as in one who testifies to the evidence, and one who is the evidence. A Christian martyr, is both a verb and a noun. Literally one who sees the way and then shows that way to others; who is a witness, in both the active and the descriptive senses. A martyr is an uncompromising witness to truth and justice and peace and God’s intention for us on this good earth.

And because of the danger and the cost, martyrs, like ascetics, are few and far between in this world. It’s just too hard to be a witness to the way things might be. It’s too hard to even see and witness the way things are, to watch and see the suffering that surrounds us, let alone be that suffering ourselves. It takes a rare constitution to offer one’s self as an agent for the transformation of the world without counting the enormous cost.

But like all prophets, Dr. King both saw the world as it was and as it might be. And he offered his life in service to the possibility; he lived according to his vision, as though what might be – was already…in his skin. This is, in fact, among our central missions as Christians, the way we are each and all called to live. To live in such a way as to be a foretaste, a witness, of the coming kingdom of God. To live, even to give our lives, in service to the possibility….believing with all that we have, that the kingdom will come. But first it must come in us.

Martin Luther King bore witness to the dream of God. And in him, that dream was made manifest.

It has been more than fifty years since we lost our prophet Martin. And still we struggle. Still the dream feels beyond us…..way beyond us. Still we spend magnitudes of energy and political capitol and preferential power making sure that the table remains exclusive to those who have a ticket and out of reach to those who do not….those other children of the living God whose water has not yet been changed into wine. Instead of using our profound resources, personally, institutionally and socially to open our borders (not to mention our academy awards!) and invite the whole of God’s creation to the banquet, we squander our gifts protecting our privilege, guarding the gate, erecting new walls to keep our own wine out of reach. And that does not just happen in the secular world. Sadly, it is also part of our constitution here in the church. God’s church. And not just that other church…the one in the Spotlight, but our very church.

The Anglican Communion has been in quite a funk for several years, actually, decades now, over the ordination of women and human sexuality. The gadfly in the ointment-that-supports-an-unchanging-tradition has been the Episcopal Church, the American branch of the Anglican Communion.

First we ordained women in 1974. Then we consecrated a woman bishop (our own Barbara Harris) in 1989. Then we consecrated a gay bishop (Gene Robinson) in 2004. In 2006 the Episcopal Church elected the first female Primate in the Anglican Communion, Katherine Jefferts Schori. In 2009 (two years after my own ordination) our General Convention officially opened all gates to openly gay priests by resolving that God’s call is open to all. In 2012 our General Convention officially allowed same-sex blessings in the church and permitted bishops pastoral leeway to allow same sex marriage in diocese where that was legal. And now in 2015, we have changed the marriage canons to be rid of gendered language and include same sex couples in the sacrament of holy matrimony. We have effectively opened the gates and welcomed the whole body of Christ to the sacraments of holy orders and holy marriage. How great is that!….I imagine God is saying.

But while the Episcopal Church has been busy living into Christ’s hospitality in God’s world, the rest of the Anglican Communion has been…..grumpy, to say the least. The southern cone of our Communion, the African and South American contingents have denounced and now attempted to sanction the Episcopal Church for its……inclusivity.

Last week the Primates of the Anglican Communion met at Canterbury, England. And if you want an excellent overview of the fallout from that meeting, I recommend the blog of the Very Rev’d. Dr. Andrew McGowan, President and Dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, The Ronan Street Diary.

But I will try to summarize here the brouhaha emanating from the communiqué issued by the Anglican Primates. Primates are the presiding bishops of the eighteen Anglican provinces. They have no real constitutional authority in either the Communion as a whole, or in their own provinces. But, as McGowan says in his blog, they do speak with significant moral authority for their members. And, their collective is seen as one of the four “instruments” of unity for our Anglican Communion. Instruments of unity are what the Anglican Communion has instead of a hierarchy of authority.

And so although the Primates cannot make binding decisions that effect the governance or polity of any of the Communion’s eighteen Provinces, they do, “exercise a significant moral authority for us all.”[1]

And so the Primates met last week at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, informally, to pray and to share experiences and fellowship. But at the end of their meeting, they issued a very formal sounding communique. I am going to read you almost the full text of the communique so that you get the full picture:

  • We gathered as Anglican Primates to pray and consider how we may preserve our unity in Christ given the ongoing deep differences that exist among us concerning our understanding of marriage.
  • Recent developments in The Episcopal Church with respect to a change in their Canon on marriage represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage. Possible developments in other Provinces could further exacerbate this situation.

They are afraid that we will not be the only ones to open these sacraments of God to all of God’s children!

  • All of us acknowledge that these developments have caused further deep pain throughout our Communion.
  • The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.
  • In keeping with the consistent position of previous Primates’ meetings such unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion.
  • Such actions further impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us…

 And here are the sanctions

  • It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However, given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity…..[2]

Effectively, we will have a voice, but not a vote on anything of substance for a period of three years.

I think first of all we must offer our thanksgivings and prayers to our new Presiding Bishop and Primate Michael Curry. This was his first meeting with his colleagues at Canterbury. Not the welcome one might hope!

Second, I think it is important to remember a few unique and wonderful things about our Anglican Communion.

1) It is just that, it is a communion. There is no central source of authority in a communion. All of the parts are there as fully autonomous members who choose to be together in……communion. And so as my god daughter says – nobody is boss over us.

2) We are a communion grounded in common prayer, not in doctrine. Unlike our Roman Catholic siblings, our common link is not a pope or a set of doctrinal beliefs, it is a book of common prayer……not a book of right beliefs.

3)The Anglican tradition has always valued diversity in its theology. The Anglican way is the middle way, via media. Our Anglican structure of authority is a so-called three legged stool that includes scripture and tradition as interpreted through the lens of reason. Our very tradition encourages understanding the universal through the lens of the vernacular. And so we are not bound to the tradition of marriage any more than we are bound to the tradition of slavery.

4) the Anglican Communion is much bigger and broader than its Primates. It includes vast and intimate networks of relationships between diocese and parishes and people, lay and ordained, and across myriad boundaries and borders. Our Communion is structured in concentric circles of friendship and common prayer rather than a hierarchy of oversight and obligation.

So, this communique sounds more punitive in theory than it is in practice. In the course of Anglican events, not much of substance will change because of it.

But the bigger question is how will we respond? How will we continue to witness and to be witness to God’s radical inclusivity? How are we to respond to the content of this stern indictment as disciples of a living God who created us in love, and redeems us in love, and leads us to life everlasting in…you guessed it, love! How are we to respond to parts of our own body that do not value……our whole body. How can we help to turn the over-fermented wine of human prejudice back into the living water of God’s dream for all of God’s people?

Well, we the Episcopal Church have several choices. We could withdraw from the Communion altogether. We could refuse to pay our dues for some period of time. We could continue to split our own ranks in the name of so-called unity.

But our new Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, has responded thusly, and I quote:

“Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.” 

All are one in Christ. That about sums it up. And it is right there in the scripture that we hold so dearly. If we want to use scripture to talk about “right” living, here it is, front and center in Paul. And it is the message and the mantra that will help us to follow the lead of those who have already shown us the way to stand for justice and peace in the face of institutional injustice…..Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Johnathan Daniels, Janani Luwum, Barbara Harris, Gene Robinson, and many, many others who have heeded Paul’s claim that we are all one in Christ. Are we ready to take the plunge with them; to make good on our baptismal promise to live into the full stature of Christ? If so, we might want to start planning what we will be writing in our own letters from the Birmingham jail….or where ever our radical love causes enough discomfort to land us in the big house for the sake of the Big Kingdom.

As every news headline this weekend suggests, these are trying times in the life of our church. Very trying times. And yet, I cannot remember a time when I have been more proud to call my self an Episcopalian….to call myself a Christian. We are the church that is transforming the church.

And the people say……Amen!


© January, 2016, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw


[1] From the Ronan Street Diary, a blog by the Very Rev’d. Dr. Andrew McGowan, President and Dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, http://abmcg.blogspot.com/2016/01/no-episcopal-church-has-not-been.html

[2] http://www.anglicannews.org/news/2016/01/statement-from-primates-2016.aspx

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