Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

A Prophetic General Convention – Sermon for Pentecost 7, Proper 10B – July 15, 2012


This sermon was preached on Sunday, July 15, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 10B: Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; and Mark 6:14-29)


In our lessons today, we have two stories about silencing the prophetic voice. First, a snippet of the not-very-familiar story of the Prophet Amos which is, frankly, cut from its context so badly that some explanation really is necessary. Second, the almost-too-familiar story of the beheading of John the Baptizer.

Amos, as he is at pains to say to the priest Amaziah, is not a professional prophet: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” Nonetheless, Amos was commissioned by God in the middle of the 8th Century before Christ to leave his home in the southern kingdom of Judah, travel to the northern kingdom of Israel, and deliver there a condemnation of Israel, its monarch and its people. In this portion of his story, he tells of God showing him four quick visions, of which the plumb line is the third. First, he is shown a swarm of locusts, illustrating that God will wipe out Israel just as locusts wipe out a crop. Second, he is shown a shower of fire that would “eat up the land.” After each of these, Amos speaks up in defense of Isreal and God relents. Third is the vision we heard in the lesson, the plumb line; Amos, however, does not defend Israel after this vision. Instead, the series of visions is interrupted by the tale of the priest Amaziah and his attempt to silence this prophet.

Amos has delivered his message to Amaziah, a message to the whole of the country, but Amaziah, who is high priest at the king’s shrine at Bethel, has edited it before delivering it to the king. Instead of a message to the whole of society, he has made it sound like nothing more than a personal threat against the king and now, certain of the king’s reaction, he warns Amos to flee, to return to the south to make his living as a prophet there, but never to prophecy again in Israel. This is where Amos protests that he is not a professional prophet, but earns his living in agriculture; and this is where the lectionary reading ends. But it is not where the story ends.

Because of his attempt to silence the prophecy, Amos speaks a word from God for Amaziah, predicting that his family will fall in ruin and dishonor and that he himself will die “in an unclean land.” Amos then tells of the fourth of his visions, a bowl of fresh fruit which God explains illustrates that God’s patience with Israel is at an end. It’s a pun in Hebrew, the word for fruit being qay’its and that for end being qets. In English, I suppose, we would say that God is calling it quits with these people. The story ends with God’s final word to Amaziah, to the all of Israel, and to anyone who would muzzle his prophets: “Be silent!” Those who would interfere with God’s word to God’s people are themselves to shut up or face consequences like those promised Amaziah!

Which brings us to the gospel lesson and the beheading of John the Baptizer. It’s so familiar it hardly needs rehearsing, but let’s just refresh our memories, anyway.

Herod imprisoned John in an attempt to appease his wife Herodias because John had been raling against her and her marriage to Herod, who was her brother-in-law before he was her spouse and, therefore, John considered the marriage adulterous. (Some suggest that Herod did so to prevent Herodias from killing John herself.) At a birthday party he threw for himself, Herod witnessed a dance by his step-daughter and was so taken that he made a rash promise to give her anything she might ask for, up to half his kingdom. Consulting her mother, the girl asks for John’s head on a platter. Hoist on the petard of his public promise, Herod has no choice but to give her what she asks, even though he was quite fearful that John was, indeed, a prophet of God. Not recorded in the Bible is the fact that not too long after the events portrayed in the Gospels, Herod was deprived of his kingdom and all his property, and died in squalid poverty exiled to Gaul. Silencing God’s prophets, again, is obviously a really bad idea!

While I would be the last to suggest that the Episcopal Church or any of its leaders are equivalent to Amos or John the Baptist, I do believe that from time to the Church does speak with a prophetic voice. I believe that, in part, because of Christ’s promise that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20) and because it has been the tradition and belief of the church since the very first Ecumenical Counsel that (as some Lutheran bishops recently put it) “we trust that God’s Spirit will form the wisdom of God’s faithful people gathered in deliberative assembly.” (ELCA Conference of Bishops, March 10, 2009)

Over 1,000 Episcopalians on Thursday concluded the bicameral deliberative assembly known as The General Convention of the Episcopal Church: 165 bishops participated as voting members of the junior house; 844 lay and clergy deputies, as voting members of the senior house. They were presented with over 440 pieces of business ranging from courtesy resolutions commending the host hotel’s staff to the adoption of a budget for the next three years to the approval of new liturgies to the election of new leadership. Much of that was done quickly, with little fan-fare and hardly any notice. Much of it was done with the boring, long-drawn-out tedium that careful legislative work often seems to entail, but again with little notice. Some of it has received and will receive the attention of a secular press itching for scandal and sensationalism, eager to sell its advertising by selling the world a picture of a church gone (as Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina, in fact, urged it in his keynote sermon) crazy! (Of course, Bishop Curry was encouraging the church to go “crazy for Christ,” something the secular press will overlook.) Some of what the church did at the 77th General Convention will, I believe, be seen in years to come to be truly prophetic, in the best sense of that word, speaking God’s Truth to a world in need of hearing it, and I suspect that there will be those who try to silence the Convention’s message or stop its actions as Amaziah and Herodias did those of Amos and John the Baptist.

Of all the work done by the Convention, there were three areas in which I believe its actions are the most important. First, it acted in regard to marriage and the promises couples make to one another when forming life-long, loving, and committed relationships. Second, it affirmed the church’s traditional understanding of the dominical sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. Third, it committed the church to structural and organic reform.

With regard to life-long interpersonal commitments, the Convention called for an in-depth study and proclamation of the church’s contemporary theology of marriage. This, in my opinion, has been needed for many years. Holy Matrimony is one of the five sacramental rites of the church which our Articles of Religion tell us arise from “states of life allowed in the Scriptures” but which have neither “visible sign [n]or ceremony ordained of God.” (Art. XXV, BCP page 872) Marriage is one of those “Traditions and Ceremonies” that it “is not necessary . . . be in all places one, or utterly like.” (Art. XXXIV, BCP page 874) Since it was first identified as a sacrament in about the 10th Century, marriage practices “have been divers,” and the Articles of Religion assure us “may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners.” (Ibid.) After a thousand years of monkeying about with marriage willy-nilly, and believe me we have done just that throughout the church’s history, taking a good, hard, methodical look at our theology and practice is a great idea!

In the same area, the Convention approved a provisional rite for the blessing of the committed, life-long relationships of same-sex couples. This is the one action that I am sure will be most discussed and most mischaracterized in the secular press. The Standing Liturgical Commission, which developed this rite, and the deputies and bishops who adopted it, have been quite clear that this is not marriage liturgy; it does not confer the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Furthermore, it is a provisional rite, which means it may only be used provided certain conditions are met. I confess that I have not read the enabling legislation, but it is my understanding that this liturgy may only be used in those States or foreign jurisdictions where the civil authorities have either made the legal state of marriage open to same-sex couples or have created some other form of legally recognized civil union for such couples. Furthermore, it may only be used with the permission of the local bishop.

The second area of important action was in regard to the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. There was a motion put forward by the Diocese of Eastern Oregon to change the canons of the church so as to permit, as a regular matter, those who are not yet baptized to receive the Sacrament of the Altar. This would have changed what has been the practice and tradition of the church since its very beginning; there has never been a time when it was not considered necessary that a person be baptized before being invited to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. While we do not check ID’s at the altar rail or communion station, and while we do now open our communion to all who are baptized in any Christian tradition (no longer restricting the Eucharist to those confirmed in the Episcopal Church), the General Convention was not willing to make that change. Instead, in a substitute resolution, the bishops and deputies affirmed that it is the normative practice and expectation of this church that Baptism precede reception of Holy Communion, and affirming that the Episcopal Church invites everyone to be baptized into the saving death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

The third and, I believe, most important of what I have called the prophetic actions of the General Convention is to take the first step toward reorganization and restructuring of the Episcopal Church. We have a national, provincial, and diocesan structure which is often top-heavy, unwieldy, and counter-productive. One of the buzz-words of recent Convention was “nimble” – that is not a word that in any way, shape, or form describes the Episcopal Church! It doesn’t even describe one of our parishes let alone the entire national organization! All too often we find ourselves standing in our own way, tripping over our own feet. In passing the resolution to re-imagine and restructure the church and calling for a task force made up of new and younger leaders to do so, the General Convention has said that we will get out of the way; we will get out of the Spirit’s way; we will get out of our own way!

There is much work to be done, but it seems to me that the hardest work will be the letting-go and stepping-aside . . . letting go of old ways of doing and being church, letting go of expectations of how things have always been done and how we think they ought to be done, letting go of office and power by those who have governed the church for generations, letting go of the hurt and pain of change . . . stepping aside to allow those newer, younger leaders to come forward, stepping aside to let the Holy Spirit come in, stepping aside to free the center so that it may be filled with something new and different. I hope that the hard work of letting-go and stepping-aside will get done, although I’m not convinced that it will.

Shortly after adopting that resolution, the House of Deputies was given an opportunity to elect newer and younger leadership. It chose instead to elect as its president someone who has been a General Convention deputy eight times and who has had a seat in the highest councils of the church for years. It elected as its vice-president someone who has been a deputy at every General Convention since 1973. I know both of these individuals and I know that they are faithful, dedicated, and capable, but I have to be honest – these folks are part of the well-entrenched, long-experienced cadre of church governors; this is leadership that is anything but new or young (and it pains me to say that since the new president and I are essentially the same age). Still, I live in hope that they can and will, in fact, facilitate and accomplish the change that is needed, because (as I said earlier) I trust that God’s Spirit forms the wisdom of God’s faithful people gathered in deliberative assembly.

So let me bring us back to our lessons for today. What might they be teaching us about how to respond to the actions of our recently-concluded General Convention?

Well . . . first, I suggest that the story of Amos and Amaziah, and the story of the Baptizer and Herodias, these stories in which someone sought to silence the prophetic word encourage us to be aware of the distortions we may hear from both the religious and the secular media. Just as Amaziah misrepresented and tried to silence Amos’s prophecy when relaying it to King Jeroboam, so too may we find the reports distorting the actual words and actions of the Convention in an attempt to undermine and stop them. Just as Herodias sought to behead John, so too we may find the detractors of our church trying to assassinate the character of our leaders.

Secondly, the defense of prophecy in the Book of Amos with its pronouncement of judgment against Amaziah or the end to which Herod and Herodias came might stand as cautionary tales against our own tendency to silence whatever it is that we find unpalatable in the prophetic voices of our church’s Spirit-led Convention, voices calling us to change in those areas in which we as a church and as individuals may be in the greatest need of reformation.

Finally, we might find encouragement that we, like Amos and John, despite the dangers in doing so, might heed God’s call to exercise our own prophetic voices in our communities, in our workplaces, or among our circles of friends speaking on behalf of our church which welcomes all and proclaims the Good News that God loves everyone, no exceptions.


  1. Eleanor Braun

    Very nice intertwining of the lectionary and the General Convention. Very well done.

  2. eric

    Thank you, Eleanor!

  3. Lynn

    Great sermon! I enjoyed the very relevant way you’ve woven GC into the historical texts.

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