Sermon for the Atlanta Annual Council

Sermon for the Atlanta Annual Council

Feast Day of William Temple
November 6, 2009

We’re celebrating the feast of William Temple today, and the first suggestion of something unusual is that this isn’t the date he died; it’s the date he was baptized. Maybe that’s a hint that his witness has more to do with incarnation than death and resurrection. Temple was just three weeks old when he was baptized, but he grew up fully into that hopeful act, and his example offers some remarkable clues about what the ministry of the baptized can look like – even if he was Archbishop of Canterbury!


Temple served in that post for only two years, during the height of the Second World War. Despite his short tenure, he’s thought by many to be the most significant Archbishop of Canterbury in recent memory. He was the son of another Archbishop of Canterbury, but he was not at all what you might expect of an English ecclesiastical aristocrat. His adult work was largely done on behalf of the poor and the working class.


The focus of his ministry was almost always on healing division – social, theological, religious, and national. He was a man of strong opinion who insisted that a person’s belief reaches maturity only through vigorous conversation, and responding to the opposing views of others. He was a reconciler, but he was most definitely not a pacifist; in fact, he called himself an anti-pacifist. He was widely criticized by other religious leaders for not condemning the Allied blanket bombing of Germany, and he was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to go into battle since the Middle Ages – visiting Normandy in the summer of 1944.


He was a big man, physically, and one poet [Ronald Knox] begins to describe him ironically like this: “A man so broad, to some he seem’d to be Not one, but all Mankind in Effigy.” He was indeed a leader of remarkable breadth, a representative of all God’s people, and a follower of Jesus who strove to, as the collect put it, “rejoice with courage, confidence, and faith in the Word made flesh, and … to establish that city which has justice for its foundation and love for its law.”


William Temple may be best known for reminding us that the church is the only human institution that exists primarily for those who are not its members. That’s a challenging view to some Episcopalians – that the church isn’t here primarily for our benefit, that the church’s basic job isn’t to take care of us or meet our needs.


The church’s primary task is to help us care for, heal, and reconcile the world. We do that by becoming like the one we worship, into whose family we are baptized, and whose members we become as we share in his body at this table. We become what we eat here, we become the living water with which we are washed, we become what we worship, we become whom we emulate.


John speaks of how this begins: ‘no one has ever seen God; it is Jesus, God in the flesh, who has made God known.’ As we become part of the body of Christ, we share in that mystery and that ministry.


Where do you discover the word becoming flesh? Or letting the mystery hidden in God be made known, as Ephesians puts it? Jesus himself would point us to the poor, or the treasure of the poor, in the phrase of St. Francis. Jesus calls the poor blessed, for they know and receive the kingdom of heaven. Where people are most vulnerable, most aware that all they need can only come from God, God’s mystery is being revealed there – the power of God made known in weakness, the wisdom of God made evident in the world’s foolishness.


I had a message from the Bishop of Taiwan a couple of days ago. He wrote to tell about the aftermath of Typhoon Morakot, which hit the southern end of Taiwan in early August. Hundreds of people died in the storm and the flooding. Bp Lai gathered his clergy on retreat recently, and took them to the village devastated by the landslides, Shiao-Lin. More than 400 bodies still lie buried under 60 or 80 or 100 feet of mud and debris. He said the smell of rotting flesh was still appalling, and their group joined in praying part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy.


One of the Episcopal churches in Taiwan had been working with school children in Shiao-Lin before the typhoon, but the school principal had forbidden any efforts at evangelism. After the typhoon, the same principal asked the church to help with the spiritual needs of those devastated children. The teachers recognized that the children of Shiao-Lin, like their elders, needed the hope these Christians could bring. Local pastoral workers are leading Bible study and prayer classes with students twice a week, and ministering to 16 local families much in need of spiritual and physical resources. The church hopes to rent a small house nearby to provide a base for continued work. Shortly after the typhoon struck, many NGOs and humanitarian agencies responded, but at this point they have all departed. The church is the only group still there in Shiao-Lin.


What’s it been like here, in the aftermath of your own floods in September? The loss of life was much smaller, and the community has responded, but your bishop tells me that the shelters are closed and almost finished with their work. Healing from other floods, like those in New Orleans, has not yet finished, and it is still the churches that endure and persist and proclaim hope.


What about the kind of enduring disaster that’s represented in the poorest inner-city neighborhoods? Who sets up camp and stays in the inner city, after one teen is murdered and another raped? Who mentors young girls in danger of being exploited? Who encourages a larger view of the world with kids who only know fast food, a fast buck, instant gratification, and 23 minute TV answers? Who ministers to and with the mentally disabled? Only people who know that death is not the last word. Only those who follow one who hangs in, even through death and violence and degradation and rejection.


We discover the word becoming flesh in the treasure of the poor, those who are poor in the world’s eyes, those who are radically dependent on God for hope, for life, and the possibility of new life. Some speak of that treasure of the poor as reflecting God’s own poverty – that God has nothing to give but God’s own self. If we’re going to follow a God like that, we have to begin to discover that radical poverty of dependence. It is only in accompanying the poor, joining in solidarity, that we will find God’s treasure. If we want to find the kingdom of heaven, we’re going to have to let some of that poverty rub off on us – in water, and meal (whether frugal or feast), and incarnate encounter. When we let go of the world’s protections, we just might discover the treasure of the poor.


Poverty isn’t just about what you have in the bank. Poverty is about where you look for hope. The world calls rich those who can look to the bank for hope. The blessed look to God, and the incarnate sharing-of-self evidence of God in Jesus and his followers – there is the treasure.


Where are you looking for treasure? Are you willing to look in the midst of those who are starving for hope?

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