One Church

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This blog post is from a previous sermon.

We are a couple of weeks away from the 4th of July, but let me start at some distance from the reading I want to speak of, namely with the Grand Old Flag, with Old Glory. Why does a flag matter? What is it really? It is a symbol that conveys simply who we all are. It says our whole history, glorious, hard. It belongs to us all as Americans. It goes with our anthem, symbol plus song, just like Church.  It is something we inherit and pass on. It reaches from shore to shore, from the Arctic to the tropical breeze of Diego Garcia or Guam. In says that we are part of something bigger than we usually think, something deep and wide, to borrow from a famous hymn. That is why we have emotion about how it is handled- you might say that it approaches being a kind of sacrament of national identity, of we-ness.

Most days we go about our business. The great politician Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts said that all politics is local. There is something like that in Church too- in one way it comes down to the struggles, gifts, and memory of a congregation. Each has its own culture, and I spend a good deal of time traveling around and learning something of those local histories. The larger church is a reality that only lands occasionally- when a bill comes due, or a confirmation is to be done, or there is a vacancy.   What I am describing is only increased by the decline in the sense of identification with denomination that newcomers have nowadays.   They visit and look for a good sermon or music or childcare, and when they find it they invest in that church, which is how we do most things in the modern world.

But that isn’t the whole story is it? We assume that the readings have to come from the Bible, and if they don’t, you’ll hear from me! We assume that a priest has to preside at the Eucharist, and he or she had better use bread and wine. And if in the sermon he or she says you don’t really need to worry about honoring your mother or father or bearing false witness, the bishop’s office is probably on the way again, if they catch wind of it. There are parts of our life that aren’t local, nor would we want them to be. But how much, and with what importance, are these dimensions of our life to local Christians, in say, Garland?

Let me offer you a few reasons why you should care. First of all, it encourages us. When it seems that nothing is working, and the boat is taking on water, we recall that we are carried along by a great wave, buoyed up by a force larger than we imagined. I am reminded of the time when Elisha told discouraged companions to look around, and God removed the blinkers from their eyes so they could see the hosts of angels reinforcing them on every side. The gates of hell cannot prevail against the church, whatever should happen to this or that smaller instance of it. Second it has to do with legitimacy. I am not saying that smaller independent churches do not have the saving gospel, but to be part of a tradition that traces its lineage to the beginning and to the ends of the earth says that the church can speak of itself as a real part of the larger church, which is catholic and apostolic. To be sure, the division of the Church is a problem, but we can hope to contribute to its redress. Thirdly, the larger purview reminds us that the Gospel has to do with truth, which is the same everywhere, which is not different in Garland from Dallas or Singapore. The church is not just therapy, a kind of spiritual massage, defined by our own preferences. We claim that it is about how things really are, for everyone whether they care about religion or not. That is a very bold claim nowadays if you think about it.  


All this brings us to today’s reading on which I want to focus. The people of God are in exile and discouraged. They are very focused on their own considerable troubles. They can’t see how they will be able to carry on. Maybe God has simply forgotten about them. Maybe his arm doesn’t stretch all the way from Jerusalem to Babylon. The God of Israel declares through the prophet that he is more than in command. His arm stretches over all the earth. Far from being cast off, the people of God are called to something grander than they could imagine. They are to be lights to all the peoples of the world. They are the beginning of God’s recreation of his whole world. Andin the preceding verses we read that all this is to happen through his suffering servant, through the chosen whose authority is consistent with worldly weakness. They are part of something much bigger because they are called by God himself, and yet the particular challenges of their immediate situation are not lost sight of.   This act of God, which turns out to be Jesus Christ, whose proclamation they are to be agents, it is the bedrock of all ministry. On it and nothing else we build all our efforts. We may be distracted by the details of our local situation, but it is the action of God, his grace, his victory, which we need to be called back to time and time again, and the Gospel.

We are hearing this morning the great and overarching truths of the faith, as well as the struggles we have in our local place, in spite of which they remain true. This means that we all have a lot in common. Christian faith is quite democratic, you might say: we are all equally creatures of God, all equally broken versions of what God intended, all offered this new life, all bound to stand before God on the last day. We realize that there is such a thing as Humanity, and we are part of it, what the Bible calls Adam. All church life may be local, but what this church of Garland has to say is true for everyone everywhere and through all time.  

So what is a bishop then? And why does it matter that he visit, other than a great excuse for a party? Think of the bishop in the same way that you think about the American flag. He is a symbol of the togetherness and oneness we have.   He is meant to be an embodied reminder of the whole history, of which the local church is a part. He is meant to make visual what we say in the Creed, that we are a body, a people, a nation, we Christians. This is all about what we mean when we say we are a church apostolic, saying the same thing as the apostles themselves, and catholic, part of one body throughout the whole world. These are hard claims really- don’t Christians continually fight with one another? And wasn’t the world a very different place 2000 years ago, when Peter and Paul walked the earth? What has Garland got to do really with Jakarta or Nairobi? But that is what we believe, and that is what the bishop is a living breathing flag of.

Well I have been bishop for the grand total of seven months, but let me finish with three of the greatest challenges I see, which are also in their own ways challenges for St. Barnabas as well, or any other parish for that matter. First of all, it is hard for parishes to see themselves as part of something greater. So much good energy and devotion is committed to seeing that the parish of which I am a member survives that it is hard to raise up our heads and see ourselves as part of something greater. How many dioceses put on their website that they have one church, of which all the parishes are mission stations, and yet how many actually believe this to be so? Really to see ourselves as part of the larger church widens our vision of the Christian life. Secondly, we are challenged to hear the Gospel even when it bumps up against the assumptions our culture makes about what is important. Who cannot think about some way in which what TV or web tells us, what our own wishes tell us, don’t collide with the Gospel? The long view helps us to overcome the grip that the latest trend has on us. Thirdly we all are dominated by what the tyranny of what we can see and feel today. Everything here is under the tyranny of death and decay, but in the eyes of God the communion of the saints is a reality. Faith gives us this wider view. Our eyes are opened to all the living and the dead standing in the presence of God, whether in celebration or regret. We are placed on this higher mountain to see this wider vista by faith, though it is only on the last day that we will see as if face-to-face.

What really matters, what is true everywhere and for everyone all times, is the gospel….but the bishop your humble servant is meant to be but a sign, a flag, of these truly important and encouraging things, and to this purpose I am very happy to be with you this morning, and in that spirit, the party is quite fitting, amen.



What To Do With That Sunset

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It is always good to be aware of the resources we have under our noses. If you are a Christian and you live in Dallas, one of those is Bruce Marshall, a Catholic theologian at Perkins. Among a number of noted books, I want to think briefly about one I read while in graduate school. While it may seem abstract and unrelated to our daily lives in parishes, it does pertain to more than you might think. In Christology in Conflict Marshall talks about how we describe things, for example Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. We might begin by saying it’s a mammal, in which case whether it is that particular cow in Chicago makes little difference - it’s an example of something more general. Or we can describe the cow in terms of its story - how it was born, how it kicked over the lantern, how it died in the great conflagration. Marshall’s point is that if you start with the general, it is harder to show how this cow or that matters. And if you start with the story, it tells you about some certain individual one, and you have to work to show the wider significance its life had.

Something similar is true of religion. We can start at the most general plane. We watch a sunset and have a sense of being part of something vast and beautiful, or look at the ocean, and have a corresponding feeling, of something deep and mysterious. We have, in other words, an experience to which we attach significance. We might then assume that something similar is true of everyone. We might even assume that it shows you what is most important about life or reality itself. There are lots of thinkers who have wanted to point at one experience or another, and go on to say ‘that is what all the religions are really pointing at, each in their own peculiar way.’ See how the story part is secondary to the general description part. You can also see how appealing this idea is - instead of religions fighting with each other, we could emphasize the seed they all share, and not worry about the husks that differ. In the modern age that has often been the tack that has been taken.

The cost is obvious. If you start in this general way - ‘all religions are really about this general truth, or this pervasive insight,’ it is very hard to make the particulars then of great importance. The experience at the core matters, the particular stories, symbols, names, each has, are secondary. But of course the people who follow these religions think no such thing - they think that their particulars matter above all else, and that they should say what matters most in their own backyard. Far from being affirming, the kind of ‘pluralism’ which finds a common stratum beneath them all ends up imposing our notion on them. It turns out to be far less receptive than it seems.

A version of this kind of pluralism is called ‘the perennial philosophy,’ according to which religions and philosophies of the ages have all been versions of the same basic insight. At the very least we can say this: such a claim is quite the opposite of the Creed you and I say every Sunday morning. It is, really, a short story about a specific person, Jesus, about whom the greatest claims about the origin of the world, about the overcoming of evil, about where it all is going, are affixed.

But if that is so, then what has that got to do with me? And how does that one man’s story touch everyone? Well, that is just what preaching and teaching set out to explain! For example, the meaning and value of other religions are not rejected totally and out of hand- now some sense of them must be made in relation to who Jesus is and where He is taking human history. Ditto us, our lives, our gazing at the beautiful sunset, in the midst of our story, which really only makes sense, says the Christian, when it finally is nestled in His.



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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.