Presiding Bishop's Sermon at the Opening Eucharist of the House of Bishops

Presiding Bishop's Sermon at the Opening Eucharist of the House of Bishops

Wisdom 2:1a, 12-24; Psalm 34:15-22; John 7:1-2, 10, 25-30
March 7, 2008

The righteous and the unrighteous – how do we tell who’s who? It’s an eternal worry, isn’t it?

In the conversation in Wisdom, there is at least a whiff of the victim’s complaint about the unrighteous whose aim in life is to go out and “get” the righteous ones. “Lie in wait for him, test him with insult and torture, so we can find out how gentle he really is!” The Psalm echoes it – God will save the righteous ones, even when they are in despair. Yet there is hope, even in the midst of the worst that life and our mortal enemies can dish out.


None of us has to go very far before we hear language like this. The letters on my desk yesterday included one complaining about what a bishop had encouraged her parish vestry to do, and how it had affected her; another was from people with a great deal of passion about directing – or rather, redirecting – some of the Church Center’s operations; a third was from an sometime Naval officer complaining that we bishops are insufficiently assertive – using language like “bishops are the biggest and best guns in the battleship’s arsenal…and we have to be willing to fire them.” I’m not sure he knew what he had written. It’s not hard to find somebody asserting his or her own righteousness in the face of the world’s oppression – or even the church’s oppression.


We’re going to spend the next few days trying to remember that we’re not victims – none of us, no matter where we stand on any of the issues. To use one particular strain of theological language, there has already been one cosmic victim, in order that there might be no more victims. If we’re going to grow up into the full stature of the Christ in whom we have died and been resurrected, you and I will need to embrace the adventure of leaving victimhood, painful as it may be. If we remain victims, insisting that the unrighteous are out to get us, we will never start on the journey.


We have leaders in this church encouraging others to walk off the field because the opposition is stacked against them. We have others who sometimes seem to be out only to punish miscreants. Our task is to assert our status as subjects, rather than objects, actors capable of informed and compassionate service. Our task is equally to discover that we are subjects of a higher and mysterious authority.


I had a remarkable encounter on the way to the airport yesterday. A few minutes after I got in the car, the driver said to me, “I know you’re a bishop. Can you explain to me just what that is?” I talked briefly about three orders of ministry, and ministry in a particular geographic area, and what my particular ministry is. I think he was fishing for how we were different from the Romans, in addition to the obvious issue of gender. In response, I got a synopsis of his life. He talked about his evangelical church, going to seminary for five years, that he had grown up in Ecuador, even though he was originally Italian, that his father was a diplomat, but had been killed in Colombia. And then he said he’d never been around a bishop before, that when he was a child they never saw any. Then we had a conversation about the Episcopal Church, and I told him some of what the Church in Ecuador was up to, including ministry with internally displaced persons there. He said, “yes! we need to get outside of our churches.” He hadn’t ever seen an Episcopal Church in Ecuador, and wanted to know if there was one in Cuenca.


And then the truly interesting part started. He told me about the church he and his family currently attend, that he liked a lot of their theological understandings – and he was quite particular – virgin birth, trinity, atonement, repentance and forgiveness – but he had some problems with the way they baptized and the way they celebrated Communion. “But that’s OK, we can disagree about those things. It’s a good church.” He did say he’d seen an Episcopal church in Brooklyn, and had been to their Spanish-language services a couple of times. He’d even had some theological conversations with a priest he’d met there. I wondered if it might be Tobias Haller, and “yes! We had a great talk!” Again he said, “we don’t have to agree about everything, we need to stop spending so much time worrying about the people inside and go out and save some souls.”


Well, my friends, I think I was preached to yesterday. And it did not have much to do with who is righteous and who is not.


Wisdom says that the unrighteous go looking to condemn the unrighteous to death, and a shameful one at that. The first part of my conversation yesterday began with asking the driver how he was. “A bit scared.” Apparently someone had set off some explosives not too far away, in front of an Army recruiting office. His assumption was that it had been done to embarrass. I continue to be astonished at how much of our rhetoric seeks to undermine the fundamental human dignity of “the other.” National politics thrives on it, and it pervades a lot of our internet communication. When we disagree with another, a part of our response often seems to be to take him or her down a notch so we don’t have to deal with an equal, so we don’t need to look in the eyes of our neighbor, and see the face of Christ.


It even goes on in the gospel. “After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him.” Putting the article in there, and phrasing it that way, makes it appear that the whole lot were out to get him. I flinch every time I have to read one of those passages. The desire continues today: “The conservatives are out to kill us.” “The revisionists are out to kill our faith.”


Yet Jesus manages to pierce that shame-mongering. “If you really knew me, you’d know where I come from.” And there is the crux, and the cross. Following him all the way to Calvary, the grave, and Easter, means letting go of our shame-dealing and idolatrous certainty that we possess the fullness of God’s truth. It means suffering the finitude of human uncertainty, the same kind that Jesus himself met in the Garden of Gethsemane. It means recognizing that there may be faithful fellow travelers who don’t do things exactly the way we’d prefer – like Simon of Cyrene, perhaps a Jew, perhaps not, yet privileged to share the load. Following Jesus to the cross means setting down our tools of shame and picking up the only thing in which we can boast.


The one thing we really can know is where Jesus comes from, even if we cannot know the fullness of his source in God. Our task is to keep seeking that larger whole. The signal moments in our Anglican history have been about just that. The Synod of Whitby, looking to gather together disparate celebrations of resurrection into one coherent whole; the Elizabethan settlement, seeking a larger whole than any of the different theological and liturgical strands; even Gregory’s missive to Augustine, to find the best of local practice and baptize it.


We know where Jesus is from. Our task is to keep looking for him in his followers.

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