Sunday, April 29, 2007

The sermon at the ordination

I've been trying to do the "day of rest" thing to some degree today, so I haven't tried to write too much about the ordination and consecration of Bishop Thomas E. Breidenthal--or the event for the youth of the diocese which took place the night before. But this whole notion of unity being in tension with justice is one that I see coming up in other areas today. So I've decided that the first piece I'm going to share is the text of the sermon given yesterday by the Rev. C. Christopher Epting, who serves as Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the Episcopal Church in the United States.
I've been a bishop for nearly 20 years now, and I cannot tell you how many times I have prayed again with the ordination vows, which Tom will take in just a few moments. Every time my mind is driven back to the ordination vows, to engage them once again prayerfully, and think about what they mean in a particular situation, two of those vows always leap out at me. The first is, "will you guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the church?" The second is, "Will you be merciful to all, show compassion to the poor, and strangers, and defend those who have no helper?" The expected answers to those questions are, respectively, "I will, for the love of God" and "I will for the sake of Christ Jesus".

It will not surprise Tom or many of you that sometimes those two vows come into conflict, or, at least stand in some kind of dramatic tension.

The first vow, about guarding the faith, unity, and discipline of the church is what St. John was up to in our epistle today. He writes, "This is a message that we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness we lie and do not do what is true. But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin." John is talking about faith, about unity, about discipline. He is talking about walking together, in fellowship, in koinonia.

The second vow is what the prophet Isaiah was up to in our first lesson today, "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has annointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." This is a favorite text of our new Presiding Bishop, and she has referred to it on more than one occasion, particularly as it is cited by Jesus in his inaugural sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth according to the fourth chapter of Luke. It reminds us, this text, whether from Isaiah or Luke, of God's "preferential option for the poor", God's offer of healing for this broken world, and the liberty that God's love makes possible for the faithful. It is a challenging, risky text. But Isaiah I believe is talking about what that vow is talking about: being merciful to all. Showing compassion for the poor and the stranger, and defending those who have no helper. He is talking about justice.

Sometimes, not least in the context of the tensions we face today in the Anglican Communion, those perspectives of unity and justice are hard to hold together. We often hear said, "You're sacrificing justice for unity!" And the rejoinder from some, "But how can we know what true justice is without unity?" It's a problem for bishops! (Laughter)

Of course, bishops are not the only Christians who have to balance those kinds of tensions and potential conflicts. The vows by which you are bound in baptism, also ask two questions, among others. "Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer?" But also, "Will *you* strive for justice and peace among *all* people, and respect the dignity of every human being?"

What if the heritage of the apostles, the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith" you profess, is perceived by some as standing in the way of justice? Disrupting peace among people, and disrespecting the dignity of at least some human beings? What if unity and justice appear to be in conflict? What then?

Well, it can be...anxiety producing. (Laughter). It can be *excruciatingly* anxiety-producing. But then Jesus has something to say about anxiety in today's gospel, doesn't he? He says to his disciples, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. If God so clothed the grass of the field, which is alive today, and thrown into the over, how much more will he clothe you? You of little faith! For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows you need them. Instead, strive for God's Kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

One of the great gifts I have found over my years as a bishop, and it did not always feel like a gift--but one of the great gifts that I have discovered in these years, in trying to face squarely into the contradictions, or at least the tensions within our faith, is that eventually, it throws one back upon the sheer mercy and love and grace of God. Because sometimes, that's the only place you have to go. It throws one back upon that primary relationship between ourselves and our God. We *cannot* always figure it out. Our structures are not always up to the task. And doing things the way we've always done them will not always be sufficient in this post-modern age in which we are called to minister.

The good news is, we don't have to figure it out. Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit to lead us, guide us, prod us into all truth--it just may not be on our timetable. Believe it or not, the Christian church is not *all* about structures. (Laughter). The Christian church is, dare I say it, is not even all about instruments of unity. (Laughter.) The Christian church is about *being* the body of Christ.

The church has never had it all figured out. The body into which you and I were baptized has been growing and adapting and evolving from New Testament times until today, and it always will be, until that last, great day.

The important thing to remember, my dear brother Tom, and my dear sisters and brothers, is to try to keep the main thing the main thing. Try to keep the main thing the main thing in the midst of all our busyness and our confusion and even sometimes our near-despair, nothing must get in the way of our basic spiritual disciplines as Christian people: Daily prayer. Bible study. Weekly Eucharist. An annual retreat. And focussed attention on God's mission of reconciliation.

No matter what else you may do as a bishop, Tom--and you'll do many things--do *those* things. Daily prayer. Bible study. Weekly Eucharist. An annual retreat. And focussed attention on God's mission--we *know* you do those things now. Continue them. ... In order to keep the main thing the main thing.

And what is that main thing? According to Isaiah, it is to work for justice, in order to prepare the way for the kingdom of God. According to St. John, it is to keep the faith, and work for its unity and its discipline, in order to prepare the way for the kingdom of God. According to Jesus, it is actually to begin to live in that kingdom, under that reign and sovereignty of God *right now*--not to wait until we have it all together. Not to wait until we have it all figured out. But to throw ourselves now, today, afresh, upon the love, and the mercy, and the grace of God. To strive for God's kingdom, and to have confidence that all the rest will be given to us as well.