This past Sunday I was privileged to hear one of my colleagues, The Rev. Christy Laborda Harris, Rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Sebastopol, CA, as she gave an inspiring homily relating some of the issues confronting our country and the Supreme Court's decisions this past week to St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians (5:1; 13-25). With her permission, I'm sharing it with you here. You can also find a link to St. Stephen's website at: http://ststephenssebastopol.org/rectors-newsletter-articles/2013/07/the-rev-christys-sermon-in-response-to-doma-prop-8.
Proper 8, Pentecost VI, June 30th, 2013
The Rev. Christy Laborda Harris
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
It’s been a big week in the life of our nation. The Supreme Court has come back with verdicts about the Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action, the Defense of Marriage Act, and California’s own Proposition 8, along with some other less headline-grabbing verdicts. Many of us have been riding an emotional rollercoaster as we’ve heard the verdicts—anger, frustration, joy, jubilation, relief, peace. There have been celebrations in the streets and opinion pieces decrying the error of our ways. There have been tears of joy and tears of frustration.
In her article released on Wednesday, our Presiding Bishop, the head of the Episcopal Church in the United States, the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, voiced her support of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down DOMA, reminding us that our Church has taken the position that neither federal nor state governments should create constitutional prohibitions that deny full civil rights and protections to gay and lesbian persons, including those available to different-sex couples through the civic institution of marriage.
She writes, “I am deeply aware that faithful Americans find themselves on all sides of these issues, including those who have not yet clearly discerned an effective or appropriate response. It is possible to disagree AND work together for the good of the larger community. That is the bedrock of our democratic political system. It is also the foundation of life in the Body of Christ. Together we can help to build up the whole community, particularly if we have the courage to listen deeply to those who hold a different view. The Episcopal Church has an ancient tradition of attempting to hold divergent views together for the sake of deeper truth. All are beloved of God, and the flourishing of each is what we believe God intended from the beginning of creation. May we help to build a beloved community in which each and every person is treated with dignity, knowing that each and every one reflects the image of God.”
Our reading today from Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia contains a similar plea. Paul entreats the Galatians to love their neighbor as themselves. The Galatian church has become divided over the issue of circumcision. You might notice that our reading today jumps from the first verse of chapter five to the 13th verse. It is in these verses that Paul discusses the situation that frames our passage today. When Paul arrived at Galatia, the people were non-Jews, they were pagans. He introduced them to Jesus. After he left, other Christians of Jewish background came through and convinced the Galatians that in order to follow Christ, they needed to take on Jewish practices.
Paul argues that this emphasis on practices distracts from the gospel. For those of you who find Paul wordy and maybe even dull, you should know that he works some humor into his writing. He writes, “you who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ” (4a). Get it? Circumcision? You’ve “cut yourself off from Christ?” Later, in his passion, he declares, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” Woa!
But more to the point, Paul writes, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (v6). The Galatians have become distracted by the issue of circumcision and have begun to bite and devour one another. They are failing in the most important area… they are failing to love each other in Christ’s love.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”
The claim of the gospel is that Christ has set us free. But contrary to the way we often view it, freedom does not mean the absence of entanglements. It does not mean we do as we like without any thought to the impact of our actions. It does not mean a separation from relationships. In movies, our culture often likes to depict a contrast between young single men, living the wild fun life and those poor men tied down by the ball-and-chain wife.
This is not Paul’s understanding of freedom. Freedom is a feature of our relationship with Jesus Christ and, therefore, becomes a feature of our other relationships. We are called to freedom… called to reveal Christ’s freedom in our lives and in our actions.
But what does this Christian freedom look like in our relationships? It looks like relationships shaped by love of neighbor. Paul is arguing unequivocally that freedom is for love…freedom allows us to love, empowers us to love. Discerning what God has done for each of us in Christ shapes the way we love our neighbors in response. And in loving our neighbors, we grow to better understand what God has done for us.
The harsh debates and infighting among the young Christians in Galatia were outward and visible signs of ongoing enslavement—signs that they had not fully embraced their freedom. Practicing faith with zeal which gives rise to anger, malice, and divisiveness ceases to be faithful, ceases to be life-giving. Paul calls the Galatians to faith working through love.
The Galatians were allowing their debates over the law of circumcision to be given precedence over the law of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. By staking their claim so firmly as either circumcised or uncircumcised they began to lose their true identity as children of God called to love God and God’s other children.
No matter what side you fall on each of the rulings this week, we are all at risk of this outcome. In the heat of our emotions, passions, and convictions we are all at risk of forgetting our central identity as children of God and of failing to see those who disagree with us as our siblings in God, as our neighbors God calls us to love.
It is easy for those who disagree with us to become so “other,” so foreign, so wrong, that our hearts grow hard against them, that we falter in our love for them and care for them. We know well that there are differing opinions within this nation, between the denominations of Christ’s body, within the Episcopal Church, within this our church community of St. Stephen’s and, I would daresay, many times within our own individual families.
We cannot afford to write off and stop loving those with whom we disagree. In doing so, we fall back under the yoke of slavery, we turn from the freedom we have in Christ. As we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves, we fail to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our strength, and with all our mind (Luke 10:27). And we begin to displace our own central identity as children of God.
The striking down of DOMA and the confirmation of the unconstitutionality of Proposition 8, mark a very important moment for this country. Equality and justice are gospel issues—gospel issues that we are told time and again throughout our Holy Scripture are very dear to our God’s heart.
Our Episcopal Church as a body—a body of elected lay people, deacons, priests, bishops—informed by theologians and Biblical scholars— has taken a clear stand against federal and state governments creating constitutional prohibitions denying the full civil rights and protections to gay and lesbian persons.
Internally, the church is presently engaged in a period of study and dialogue about the nature of Christian marriage. At our General Convention of the entire Episcopal Church in 2012, a liturgy for same sex blessings was approved for trial use. While the canon law of the church has not yet been amended and these liturgies are still in the trial phase, in this diocese, our Bishop has written and given the clergy permission to act as agents of the state for the purposes of a marriage and as clergy of the church for the blessing.
Speaking about the same-gender marriages once again being legally possible in California, our Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Barry Beisner, wrote on Wednesday, “As you know, I have been openly in favor of the restoration of such rights, which I take to be a matter of basic civil rights. I am, therefore, among those who rejoice at this decision, as I know many of you do. I am also mindful that others among us may feel differently about this issue, particularly when it comes to the matter of marriage equality in the Church. May God help us to hold each other in that respect and love to which we are committed in the promises of Holy Baptism.”
Each time we renew our baptismal covenant, we are asked:
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
May we continue to answer with our words and our lives: I will, with God’s help. AMEN.
 Mark Douglas, “Feasting on the Word,” Year C, Vol. 3