Newly consecrated Bishop George Sumner performed an ancient tradition as he knocked three times on the closed, outside doors of St. Matthew’s Cathedral with his crosier and was then greeted and welcomed into the church by the dean and wardens.
Sumner’s enthronement to the bishop’s chair at the Cathedral on Nov. 15 wrapped up a full weekend of events in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas including the annual convention attended by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the consecration which was attended by roughly 2,000, and numerous receptions and dinners.
Vested in new robe, mitre, and pectoral cross, Sumner continued the traditions of the enthronement with the Rev. Dr. Neal Michell, dean of the cathedral.
“George Sumner, Bishop in the Church of God, and our bishop, we welcome you to your Cathedral Church, the symbol and center of your pastoral, liturgical and teaching ministry in this diocese, Michell said.”
Sumner responded, “I, George Sumner, your bishop, thank you for your welcome. I promise, God helping me, to be a faithful shepherd and servant among you. I pray that the ministry, which we will share, may be pleasing to God, and that it may strengthen the life of this diocese, and the whole Church of God. I now ask to be seated in the chair that is the symbol of my office.”
The service continued with the following sermon by Sumner:
In advance of one of my first parish visits, a few weeks ago, the rector suggested I talk at the adult forum about what I have been working on recently. A book on the doctrine of sin, actually. The rector demurred - perhaps the bulletin announcement, ‘new bishop’s studies of depravity,’ would put parishioners off. At least parishes will be glad the Rt. Rev. Dr. Dead has left, and blessedly the rector is back in the pulpit. Well, in a similar good-time-Charlie vein I want to begin this happy evening thinking about tragedy.
We human beings are built to run toward a goal. We run toward what we want, what we hope for. We run toward home. But what it turns out we are really running toward- that is a different story. In the grim “No Country for Old Men,” by that dark sometime catholic Cormac McCarthy, set in west Texas, the characters run toward a bag of loot, or a new life, or reunion with her husband, but what they are all really running toward is the sociopath Sighur, with his deadly air-gun. He thinks he is the random agent of doom, with a flip of the coin, who shall live, who shall die. Life can feel like that- run toward the future, but really you are running toward a cancer screening, or a breakup, or nothing in particular. We think we are running toward home, but the Greek writers of tragedy knew all about this. The king is determined to run toward the truth, run toward daylight, no matter what, but what he learns at that crossroads is a hard, cold light indeed. And the amazing thing about the Christian Gospel is that it denies none of this - we are running there indeed.
In today’s lesson from Philippians Paul thought he was running toward sanctity, toward being the elect. He now sees that all these plans for his own religious accomplishment are as nothing. His is a CV consisting of wind. And we know that in actual history he is running toward a martyr’s death far from home among soldiers of the empire little different from those who killed his master. The story the world tells us, both within and without, is hard.
But in today’s epistle there is a second goal toward which the apostle is running. And this is so because in the story of salvation there is a second plot at work, running through the cold and hard one, inside of it, on top of it. The father has shocked us all by running toward us. His prodigal sons and daughters, in Jesus Christ. That same son has died a lonely and defeated death in the holy city toward he has run, but now he is raised. God has given to the history of humankind another end, all of his making. Now, through and beyond doom, there is the new Jerusalem, the city of God, his kingdom. Through no power of ours, we are also journeying toward the day of the Lord and his victory.
That is what Paul is talking about here in Philippians 3. Everything he thought he was going to earn is counted loss because something much greater is counted to his credit. He now has the hope of attaining the resurrection of the dead, God’s day, which lies ahead but is inseparably connected to Jesus’ own resurrection. As a result a new kind of running commences, running toward God’s new day, the one he alone will bring. Paul presses on into the future, into the unknown. He wants to grasp it and ‘make it his own,’ not because he has some power over it, but because he knows the one who is there to meet him, and, present appearances notwithstanding, what kind of day it will be.
If only we too of the diocese of Dallas can attain the resurrection of the dead, we too who leave off what lies behind and press on to this upward call in Christ Jesus. In short, our life together is all defined by this, amidst many differences: we are running together toward the resurrection. Our platform, our work-plan, the place we are headed, can be summed up in that one familiar and profoundly mysterious phrase. Let me spend my remaining minutes just touching on what that would mean.
We are here to witness to the resurrection of Jesus- but what does that mean? How is it that all that we believe, and all we are called to do, and suffer too, is packed into that one phrase?
First of all, it means that we are people who are making a claim that is shocking to the world. This man Jesus is raised up bodily from the dead. He is alive in a wider and deeper sense than we can imagine. This is not a mere symbol for hoping springing eternal, or for finding lasting meaning in life. Those sentiments may be so, but there are so only because Jesus is actually and bodily raised. The great southern catholic writer Flannery O’Connor once heard the equally famous skeptic Mary McCarthy call the Eucharist a symbol, to with O’Connor replied, ‘well, if its only a symbol I say to heck with it.’ We believe something similar about Jesus being raised. This matters because only if he is bodily raised is it really he- so that the one we obey, and will someday meet on the verge of doom is a person, not a stranger but my friend. In this way we, the diocese of Dallas, are proud to be conservatives, traditionalists in this bedrock way. Let us all be allies in this kind of traditionalism. Dissent is welcome, but we all say the creed without our fingers crossed.
Secondly, this does not mean we are not interested in our culture, our time, the struggles of the young, the challenge of science and secularity, the blood sport called politics. What is all of this but a running toward the future? Do we not imagine there harmony, or liberation, or ease, or justice are to be found? In fact every endeavor of the human mind is a pressing on in the name of the future. Every religion is an rival account of the human future. That is why our faith has something to say to each and every effort, every camp, every generation. Ours is a struggle over the shape of this future which we seen only in a glass darkly. We Christians have much we do not know, much we can be taught, but we are also witnesses to the shape, indeed the face, of the future, which we are running to meet. No one surely is more interested in that future than the young, with whom we as Church have much to discuss. Our whole life amounts to one great claim about that future, a risky claim, and if we are wrong we will be says Paul, of all most to be pitied. We are banking with our lives on Jesus and his resurrection- hardly a safe risk-averse kind of traditionalism.
Thirdly, being a Christian means that we know what time it is, we know when our running is taking place. To be a Christian is to be running between that first resurrection and the second one. Those apostles were, first and foremost, witnesses to the first resurrection and pilgrims in hope of the second. Most every reference to them in the New Testament affirms this. And insofar as a bishop is, in all humility, an inheritor of this mantle, he exists to remind the flock where and when they are alive. What time is it? It is, says the New Testament, the time of the nations, the time that the door of salvation is swung wide open, the time of grace and the new law of the love of Christ. And that means that the nations need to be told of this, to be invited. We are supposed to run toward the resurrection with our fellow Gentiles. This is why mission is an option for the church just as oxygen is for a living creature, said the theologian Emil Brunner famously.
Fourth and finally, running toward the resurrection defines our life together as the Body of Christ. It is easy to be discouraged with the Church, not least among clergy themselves. If you have done this kind of work for a long while, you can surely take Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, a vision of the house of the people of God far from home, as your own? Clergy to lay, who has not recognized the poignancy of Jesus cooking fish on the beach for his own beloved friends, who have just now betrayed him, applied to his or her own life? But God’ Spirit, even this late in time, rattles those bones. And Jesus does not dwell on the betrayal, but rather on what he now has in mind for them (and what the running up ahead will cost them.) The Church, compromised, sinful, unlikely, receives its life back too as if from the dead. It has nothing to boast of, no CV for it either, but this second wind, this running with expectation, after we had supposed that we had labored in vain, and spent our strength on vanity. That is our life in the years ahead of us, brothers and sisters, whether it is autumn or spring in your own mortal life, this leaving behind and running ahead in which spiritual youth is restored like an eagle.
Let me end with that idea of a CV. I have already mentioned how Philippians 3 I Paul’s impressive CV come to naught. In addition to discerning the movement of the Spirit, an episcopal search invariably has a dimension of the job application- each candidate putting forward his best foot in the form of a resume. So did I, among other admirable candidates. The gifts are in my case matched by failings and shortcomings, as you will over time learn! But in truth my real CV is far more impressive than anything I wrote down for our process last winter and spring. For I come to you all as bearer of what you already have- the message of the resurrection of the dead through our risen Lord Jesus Christ, which we cannot bring, toward which we will in the coming years run together in weakness, in confidence, in joy. Amen.