It’s a joy for me to preach this ordination sermon, first of all because of my enormous respect for Tom Breidenthal which only grows over the years. Secondly, because of my fondness for the Diocese of Southern Ohio which I am privileged to visit from time to time as Bishop Visitor for the Community of the Transfiguration, and – last but not least – because I was ordained to the diaconate on the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena the Lessons for whose feast Tom has chosen for his ordination today!
I’ve been a bishop for nearly 20 years now and I can’t tell you how many times I have prayed again with the ordination vows Tom will take in just a few moments. Two of them always leap out at me on those occasions. The first is, “Will you guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church?” And the second, “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;” “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 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: “This is the message 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.” (I John 1:5-7). John is talking about faith, unity, and discipline. He is talking about walking together…in fellowship.
The second vow is what the Prophet Isaiah was up to in our First Lesson: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…”( Isaiah 61: 1-2a).
This is a favorite text of our new Presiding Bishop and she has referred to it more than once, particularly as it is cited by Jesus in his inaugural sermon at the synagogue in
Nazareth recorded in Luke 4. It reminds us of God’s “preferential option” for the poor, God’s offer of healing for this broken world, and the liberty God’s love makes possible for the faithful. It is a challenging, risky text, but Isaiah is talking about “being merciful to all, showing compassion to the poor and stranger, and defending those who have no helper.” He is talking about justice!
Sometimes, not least in the context of the tensions we face in the Anglican Communion today, those perspectives (unity and justice) are hard to hold together. We often hear it 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!
Of course, bishops are not the only Christians who have to balance those kinds of tensions and conflicts. The vows by which you are bound in baptism also ask two questions: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” 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?
Well, it can be anxiety producing! It can be excruciatingly anxiety producing…But then, Jesus has something to say about anxiety in today’s Gospel. 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 clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and thrown into the oven, 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 that 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, in trying to face squarely into the contradictions, or at least the tensions, within our faith is that it eventually throws one back on the sheer love and mercy and grace of God! 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 have always done them will not always be sufficient in our post-modern age.
The good news is — we don’t have to figure it out. Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. It just may not be on our timetable! The Christian Church is not all about structures (or even “instruments of communion!”). It is about being the Body of Christ. The Church has never had it all figured out! This 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 the last, great day!
The important thing in the meantime, my dear brother Tom, and my dear sisters and brothers in Christ, is to try and “keep the main thing…the main thing!” That is why, in the midst of all our busyness and confusion, nothing must get in the way of our basic spiritual disciplines as Christian people – daily prayer and Bible study, weekly Eucharist, an annual retreat, and focused attention to God’s mission of reconciliation.
No matter what else you may do as a bishop, Tom, do those things! Daily prayer and Bible study, weekly Eucharist, an annual retreat, and focused attention on God’s mission. No matter what else you may do as a diocese, dear friends, do those things. Daily prayer and Bible study, weekly Eucharist, an annual retreat, focused attention on God’s mission! 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
According to St. John: It is to keep the faith and work for its unity and discipline in order to prepare the way for the Kingdom of God.
And 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 on the love and mercy and grace of God! To strive for God’s Kingdom… and to have confidence that all the rest will be given to us as well!