Sermon by the Presiding Bishop at the Washington National Cathedral
A year ago today, I stood in this pulpit in the course of the Liturgy during which I was invested as your new Presiding Bishop, Primate and Chief Pastor. The time since then has sped by, and as I look back over the past months, I am overwhelmed by all that has happened. Indeed this has been an incredible year: travels to the Middle East, Central America, Rome and Canterbury, from Florida to Maine, from California to Texas – as well as intense exposure to the cultural and ethnic diversity that is found, not only in the Episcopal Church, but also in the Anglican Communion, has stretched me tremendously.
At the same time, I have had a growing awareness that the Office of the Presiding Bishop is a ministry to the whole church and indeed to the Anglican world and to other households of faith as well. As sign, symbol, and instrument, the Presiding Bishop must always seek the larger view, the broader perspective that embraces and includes, and call the community to seek the Truth who is Christ in one another, and in the diversity of our responses to the rigors of the gospel and the leading of the Holy Spirit. I have learned a great deal in this last year.
Not long ago a reporter called and in a very doleful voice asked me how the year had been. “It’s been great,” I replied. There was a prolonged silence at the other end of the line. The reporter had quite obviously expected a very different response. Wasn’t I worn out, harried and oppressed? “No,” I answered, “Actually I have been energized and enlivened by all that has happened, particularly the opportunities to be with bishops and clergy and laypersons of all stripes and opinions in dioceses, congregations, councils, committees, commissions, conferences, retreats, quiet days and all manner of ad hoc gatherings which, taken together constitute our life as an ecclesial community known as the Episcopal Church within that larger community of ecclesial households, the Anglican Communion.
What I have encountered everywhere I have gone is faithfulness and generosity of spirit and a deep desire for the Episcopal Church to manifest in all aspects of its life, the mind and heart of the risen Christ. To be sure, there are different perceptions of what is the mind of Christ in relationship to any number questions abroad in the life of the church — such as the distribution of wealth, new bio-medical procedures, inclusion and exclusion related to race, gender or sexual orientation, as well as stewardship of the world in which we live.
“Who are you to tell me that I am welcome in my own house?” a number of us were asked by a member of the Sioux Nation several months ago at a consultation on congregational ministries. Her words startled me and obliged me to acknowledge that I, as part of the dominant culture, had mistaken a spirit of accommodation — we will, out of our magnanimity, grant you a place in our church —for the recognition that all of us, by virtue of our baptism are limbs and members equally, though with different gifts and functions, of the risen body of Christ and household of faith, the Church.
Jesus, as his ministry evolves, makes it clear that the Father’s house is for all people. And St. Paul in his letters again and again challenges the community to repent of the subtle and obvious divisions and assumed superiority with which one group within the early church viewed another. Some of the apostle’s strongest words have to do with divisions between rich and poor, which were laid bare in the meal which regularly accompanied the celebration of the Eucharist. In his mind such divisions were tantamount to dishonoring the body of Christ and its members.
How easily, and with what unawareness, we discount or patronize particular groups within the church. Or – again – lump a whole range of historical and cultural distinctions into some homogenizing label such as “Hispanic.” Who are we indeed to tell others that they are welcome in their own house when the Master of the house is the One who made and loves us all?
Today we call to mind the baptism of Jesus: that moment when, in solidarity with those who were opening themselves to the transforming urgency of God’s reign, the Savior descends into the waters of the Jordan and joins his yearning to God’s desire for righteousness and justice. When he emerges everything has changed. The Spirit of the Lord is upon him and his longing and that of God, become unutterably one in a profound experience and declaration of belovedness: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus’ vocation, is then made clear to him through his struggle in the wilderness; his food he tells us “is to do the will of the one who sent me and to complete his work.”
The shape of that work, his mission, is then revealed to him when he returns to Nazareth and is asked to read in the synagogue. He is given the scroll. He unrolls it and reads from the 61st chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poorâ¦to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” As he reads these words, his identity as the beloved, his vocation to complete God’s work, and his mission to proclaim the good news of release and freedom, all come together in a profound experience of self-possession and self-donation: knowing that he is loved, and loving in return.
To be buried and raised with Christ in baptism, to pass through the waters of rebirth and be “born again into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” is to be brought face to face with our own belovedness. “[God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” These words from the Letter to the Ephesians underscore what baptism celebrates and conveys: that each one of us is a beloved son or daughter with whom God is well pleased, in whom God takes pleasure and delight, not because we have been useful or purposeful, but simply because we exist.
How much blame and accusation and contempt we pile upon one another because we are unwilling — and sometimes because of our own wounds unable, to see one another as the objects and subjects of God’s profligate and unbounded love. Here the First Letter of John leaves us very little room for equivocation. The writer bluntly states: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seenâ¦those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
Love in this context is not a feeling, but a capacity for relationship, a relationship of mutuality and self-giving which has its perfect expression in the inner life of the Trinity in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit give and receive from one another in an unceasing circle dance of dispossession. To be baptized is to be drawn into this circle and to find that our life is no longer our own, not because it has been taken away, but because it has been taken up into Christ through the Holy Spirit, the minister of communion and relationship, who actualizes the love of God in our hearts understood as the core and center of our being. And in the manner of Jesus who emerged dripping from the Jordan, our lives are never the same again.
Love, therefore, has to do with growth, growing up into Christ who is the head of the body, the Church, “from whom the whole body joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
Like it or not, baptism binds us together in bundles of relationship. Some of these seem like the mystic sweet communion of which we sing. Others… none of us in our more sane and rational moments would ever have chosen. God’s imagination is fierce and wild when it comes to determining who belongs in relationship with whom. Natural affinity and shared points of view may be allowed us part of the way, but then there comes that awful moment when our consciousness is stretched and we are invited to see in the unwelcome “other” some undeniable hint or intimation of Christ’s living presence, perhaps not directly but rather in the undeniable bond of mutual sympathy or shared expectation which catches us off guard and says in effect ” I am your brother; I am your sister.
I think here of St. Francis of Assisi, to whom I referred in my homily a year ago. Possessed of an almost pathological fear and hatred of lepers, who existed on the outer margins of medieval society, Francis, out riding one day, found himself driven from his horse into the arms of a stunned leper. No one was more surprised than Francis himself. What had impelled him to perform such a reckless act? The very question contained within itself the answer. In embracing his greatest fear he found himself, he found his brother, he found Christ and, most important of all he found that he was bound in a profound sense of brotherhood to the whole of creation: the birds, the beasts, the sun and the moon, and all sorts and conditions of humankind. Such is the nature of the love that is worked into us by the Spirit who hovers with seeming innocence over the waters of the font.
Love, however, makes its own costly demands. As Thomas Merton observes: “As long as we are on earth the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another. Because of this, love is the resetting of a body of broken bones.” He then goes on to say, “Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them.”
God’s love made flesh in Jesus and lifted high on the cross is a suffering love. And therefore if we through baptism are plunged into that love and raised to newness of life by its force and power, we can expect that the demands it makes upon us will not be without pain as we are brought face to face with the subtle and obvious patterns of our resistance to love: God’s love for us and all the other broken limbs and bones God is seeking to reset and join together in the body of his Son.
This is a process of “re-membering.” We are joined together as members of the body, and in this process, “the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you’,” as much as it may wish to, because in some profound way we are for one another’s salvation. We need one another and that dimension of God’s grace and truth, the fruit of the Spirit we each possess, which – over time – has been worked into the fabric of our lives.
It is not by accident that we are members one of another in the body of Christ, and it is through our outrageous particularities, which can as easily grate and annoy as well as console and inspire, that God carries on his unceasing work of binding up and making all things new.
Jesus’ baptism was the beginning of a process of unfoldment which involved the vocation to be about God’s work and the mission to proclaim by preaching, teaching and healing, the good news of God’s reign. In a few moments I will invite you to renew your own baptismal covenant, your own willingness to be caught up into Christ, your own willingness to be embraced as God’s beloved daughter or son, your own willingness to be bound together as limbs and members of Christ’s body, branches of Christ the Vine, living stones of a spiritual house, and in all the other bundles of relationship that God devises to build us up and make us whole for the sake of the world God so passionately loves.
As baptism was a beginning for Jesus so it is for us. “Become who you are,” St. Augustine of Hippo declared many centuries ago to a group of newly baptized in northern Africa. Each of us therefore is always on the way to becoming who we are called to be – to grow up into Christ – as vital and fully functioning limbs of his Body according to the measure of the grace – “the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” – that has been given us. It is for this reason that we must periodically recall our baptism and all that it is about. By renewing our baptismal covenant we acknowledge our thwarting and misuse of the grace that has been entrusted to us. And trusting in Christ whose power is made perfect in our weakness we begin again and again.
“Go, rebuild my Church,” Christ said to St. Francis. We are the Church by virtue of our baptism, not this building in all its glory, nor any structure we might devise. We are the Church, the living stones God is using to build a spiritual house — which is always under construction according to God’s plan and not our own. The baptismal Covenant asks us to repent and return to God’s love, to repent our judgements, our biases, our exclusions, our lack of imagination, our unwillingness to be loved and to love. Such repentance is a precondition of our being built up into Christ, not once but over and over again. Such repentance is necessary if this curious, contentious, increasingly diverse and sometimes amazingly faithful household we call the Episcopal Church is to be a sign of God’s fullness. Such repentance is also a grace for which we must pray with undefended and expectant hearts, while at the same time we cry out, “Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.”
The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA