Glory in the Gray The Rev. Mary Slenski
There’s a good deal of conversation in the public square about women’s reproductive rights, again, with the legislation recently passed in Texas. Two years ago, when the conversation was also active in the public square, I preached a sermon where I summarized the official resolution of the Episcopal Church on childbearing and abortion. I offered the sermon to the Wardens for sharing with the congregation as a formation resource. With their review and consent, it’s available here. The full statement is available here: https://www.episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/acts/acts_search.pl?user_query=1994-a054. Feel free to send comments or questions to me here (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’ll be with you this weekend and am willing to stay after as well.
This sermon was first preached at Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park, Illinois on May 19, 2019. It has been lightly edited for wider distribution.
Our gospel reading (John 13:31-35) used some form of the word glory six times in two verses. Must be trying to make a point. To glorify is to make visible the presence of God. Sometimes, glory just presents itself right where you’d expect it.
A mother sits down with her little daughter after breakfast one morning. The eldest is off to school. There won’t be too many more mornings for the two of them to read stories after breakfast. This mom is great with a new child. They’re sitting in line with the kitchen window. As the morning sun rises and shines through the window, the little girl’s head blocks the sun. Mom looks over to see the sun’s rays framing the little girl’s face gloriously, like the halos around the heads of angels in our stained glass windows. And this mother treasured this moment and pondered it in her heart. To God be the glory! All three children were conceived in love, welcomed into a safe home with two parents who could provide for them. While this moment is to be enjoyed and remembered, as in many families, there are areas in the past, and there will be in the future, where the glory is to be found in the gray areas, where decisions about pregnancy and childbirth aren’t quite so easy.
There’s a lot of conversation going on in the public square regarding women’s access to reproductive health care, pregnancy and childbirth. People have been surprised to know that the Episcopal Church has had a Statement on Childbirth and Abortion since 1988. That statement was reaffirmed at the 71st General Convention in 1994 and still stands. A couple of things first:
1. I am presenting the official statement of the Episcopal Church, and not my personal opinion. I have a responsibility to do so. (https://www.episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/acts/acts_search.pl?user_query=1994-a054) In accord with the way we do business, it was brought forth in hearings and approved by both the House of Deputies i.e. lay members and clergy from all dioceses, and by the House of Bishops. Lots of people; lots of prayerful deliberation.
2. Faithful Episcopalians may hold a diversity of opinions.
3. The statement is a resource for advocacy, teaching and discussion.
4. I am only asking for listening with love and respect. This is an emotionally charged subject.
It’s only a page long and I am going to summarize. OK? The General Convention of the Episcopal Church reaffirms:
• All human life is sacred from its inception until death.
• Birth of a child is a joyous occasion in the family and in the Christian community.
• We affirm responsible family planning.
• We regard all abortion as having a tragic dimension, calling for concern and compassion of all the Christian community.
• While in this country women legally have the right to a medically safe abortion, this right is for extreme situations.
• When an abortion is being considered, members of this church are urged to seek the dictates of their conscience in prayer, to seek advice and counsel of members of the Christian community, and where appropriate, the sacramental life of this Church.
• When members of this Church are consulted regarding a problem pregnancy, they are to explore, with grave seriousness, with the person, alternatives and other positive courses of action.
• We believe that legislation concerning abortions will not address the root of the problem.
• We are convicted that any proposed legislation at any level of government must take special care to respect the individual conscience. We honor the responsibility of individuals to reach informed decisions.
• And further, this convention expresses its unequivocal opposition, to any action, on the part of governments at any level, that abridges a woman’s right to reach an informed decision about the termination of a pregnancy. It also opposes any action that would limit the access of a woman to a safe means of acting on her decision.
We, the Episcopal Church have been accused of being wishy-washy on issues that others see as cut and dry. We’ve taken a difficult road shaped by scripture, tradition and reason. Our scripture is not a biology text. It doesn’t answer scientific questions. It does direct us to look to creation to see the glory of God. It does show us how faithful people have seen God revealed in their story. We set our hearts upon–that’s what the ‘we believe’ in our creeds mean—we set our hearts in God, creator of all things, seen and unseen. We set our hearts on the witness of Jesus Christ to the power of Love. We set our hearts on a Holy Spirit to move, to heal and to inspire beyond the limits of the institutional Church. And, still, despite all the goodness, reason dictates that we acknowledge sin, violence and injustice that infect our lives. We promise as individuals and as a community to uphold the dignity of every human being. We strive to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. And in doing those things, we may find the glory of God revealed, often in places we’d never expect, in the gray areas between absolutes.
In this statement, we recognize the many dimensions of the situation. We affirm human life as sacred and a woman’s right to choose. We uphold access to safe health care. We offer to accompany a woman through her decision wrapping her with respect and dignity, as she allows. We recognize that, despite all of these good things, there are situations where the most life-affirming decision may be to terminate a pregnancy. Even then, nothing shall separate her nor the child from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Life is filled with gray areas between absolutes. There’s a gray area where the definition of life is more than biology. There’s a gray area where the complexity of the human condition brings deeply held values into conflict with each other. There’s a gray area where there are many goods to be weighed against one another. There’s a gray area where duty is hard to discern. These gray areas are exactly where we are called to humble, loving service to life, in all its dimensions, as a community gathered around a table, our feet on the ground.
This is where our gospel reading comes in.
We began with, “At the last supper, when Judas had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.’” (John 13:31) Has been. Interesting. Has been is something that has taken place in the past. The Son of Man has already been glorified, and God has already been glorified. So, where is or are these ‘has beens’ where God has been glorified? Let’s look back to the last supper which is just before our reading.
This is the gospel of John. In his gospel, the last supper is the meal we remember on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week. After the meal, Jesus wrapped the towel around his waist, took a basin, and went around the table washing his disciple’s feet. Then, he gave them the mandate that they should wash one another’s feet. I imagine the water in the basic becoming gray with the remnants of the dusty road.
Washing feet is the symbol of the humble servant ministry of healing and meeting people where their feet hit ground–the symbolic act of loving one another. Humble service took the place of absolutes of in and out, clean and unclean, servant and master. In this act, in the gray area between what has been and what will be, the presence of God is revealed. And so, we may stand in line with those first disciples, feet dusty with the wear and tear of our day, wash each other’s feet, and find God, in those moments of absolute clarity, and in the gray areas, where the only absolute is this: if God can be present in death, God can be present in the gray areas of our lives. To God be the glory!
Note: As they arrive, ushers will be handing parents with children a note with the following:
My sermon today will be on a topic for mature audiences. I’ll be sharing the Episcopal Church’s policy statement on childbirth and abortion. It is hard to avoid some vocabulary that might raise questions from a child. You are welcome to take children upstairs during the sermon.