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February 6, 2013
Sermon delivered by
The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine
It is the great honor of my life -- joyful to be sure, but also weighty and formidable -- to come to this pulpit today for the first time as the Bishop of New York. As ever, it is a pleasure to worship at this altar with Bishop Sisk, and on this day of all days I am confident that he feels as I do the same poignancy of this transition, and of the act of succession which has just taken place. Only a few weeks ago we gathered here to celebrate his ministry as bishop in this diocese, but having now received the crozier from his hand, and the chair of my office from Dean Kowalski, I would be remiss if I did not today note, with thanks, Mark’s faithful and inevitably sacrificial service over fifteen years as coadjutor and diocesan, to the church of God and the Diocese of New York.
It also gives me much satisfaction to welcome Bishop Grein back to this cathedral, with true affection and respect. With us too, are Bishops Smith and Donovan, and Chilton Knudsen whom I expect to begin service as my Assistant Bishop in April. Dean Kowalski, you welcomed me to this church this morning, but long ago you welcomed me into a genuine friendship and partnership. I am forever grateful.
To my brother and sister bishops I bid welcome. Some of you are new friends, and some friends of many years. Which leads me to a personal note, if you will permit me. Bishop Diane Bruce of Los Angeles has come a long way to be here. She and I have become fast friends in the short time I have been a bishop, but I want to tell you also that I have learned from her that she knew my mother, an active Episcopal laywoman in Diane’s part of the Diocese of Los Angeles. As well, two of my mother’s former rectors are among us. Father Samir Habiby, who served her parish over thirty years ago, and Father Wilfredo Benitez, whom I love as a brother, and who was my mother’s priest for the better part of twenty years. My mother Jane, who made an Episcopalian out of me, and, I hope, a decent human being, just passed into the larger life two months ago, but the presence of these her pastors in deeply personal ways brings her into this room for me.
But chiefly it is my joy to be with you all. Many of you I have known for the eleven years I have served this diocese, and others for a shorter time, but all dear to me. I have worshipped with you in all your churches, I have prayed for you by name, and it has been my privilege to share the common life of this wonderful Diocese of New York with you. That I am the Bishop of New York is a wonder to me, a mystery, and I hope it remains ever so. May I never take this grace for granted, and may I never stop seeing how much I have to learn. But you will discover in me that I use the word love unabashedly and freely, though I hope never casually, and always sincerely. So that as you call me to be your bishop, I tell you that I love you, and you have my all in all, now and to the end of my days.
• • • • •
Today is the Feast of the Presentation, or as it is more commonly known, Groundhog Day. I like it that we observe these two feasts together, one sacred and one ridiculous, because I think that actually the groundhog is not a bad representative, even a patron, for such an observance. Because we also call this feast Candlemas, and we mark it as the Christian Feast of Lights. This festival is all about light and shadow, illumination and darkness; the passage through winter toward spring, from tomb to garden; remembrance and hope; and attention paid to things hidden and things revealed. On Christmas we were told again that the light has shined in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Forty days later we light our midwinter candle and are here to say that only the groundhog need fear the shadow, for in Christ we are made confident for the dark, unafraid for the night, brave and strong for the desolate valley. That is, by the way, what they call a Faith Statement. Meaning that in a too often punishing world of woe, there is no evidence for such surety except for the strange and wondrous convictions we hold.
Here’s what happened. Forty days after the birth of Jesus, because he was firstborn, his parents brought him to the Temple to dedicate him to the service of God, as the law required. They made the sacrifice of two young pigeons. There at the Temple they met the old man Simeon and then the prophetess Anna. Both heralded the child as the long-awaited savior and redeemer, Simeon in words which have become the evening hymn of the church: “Lord, you now have set your servant free, to go in peace as you have promised; for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: a light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.”
In the usual extravagances of the hagiographic tradition it is said that Simeon was 270 years old. And blind. And that he had given over his life to waiting through the long years and watching through sightless eyes for the new thing that God would do. And then one day a young couple like all young couples arrived as countless others had done, with their infant son like all the other infant sons, and Simeon approached them and the light of God streamed into his closed eyes and he knew that the promises of God were fulfilled. It is a charming story, and one which is easy to appreciate for its poetic beauty, and just as easy to dismiss as fable, but for these his words: “These eyes of mine have seen your salvation.”
Which is about as pretty and profound a thing as can be said, and reaches down through the ages to move and to challenge every soul and every set of eyes. It turns the question back onto us and asks us -- who have accepted as Lord that same child -- where, if we have, we have seen salvation. The light to enlighten the nations. And inasmuch as it is God’s way to work his wonders through the utterly ordinary, and reveal himself through things that look like every other thing, as was clearly Simeon’s experience, the answer to that will never be obvious, but the witness of Simeon is that we have to keep looking. Maybe Simeon is the patron of all true seekers, who understand that seeking itself is a kind of fulfillment and who do not tire of waiting on God. Which is I think true for what I have discovered about myself when I am at my best and the things that I have learned about God when I’ve been paying attention, or seen of God with these eyes of mine.
But there is an anxiety which overlays this story, a context for Simeon’s declaration and I think surely for how Mary would have heard it. This is as much about Mary as it is about Simeon, and this story is of a meeting, and what was revealed by that coming together. The parents of Jesus came to the temple and offered two young pigeons as the required sacrifice for the dedication of their son. But here’s the thing: two young pigeons was not the required sacrifice. The required sacrifice was a lamb without blemish, though the law did make allowance for those who could not afford to buy the pricey lamb -- those who could demonstrate their poverty to the priests and temple officials -- to sacrifice two pigeons instead. And yes, I know, that Jesus was the lamb without blemish, but let us not allow our theological overlay to erase for us the narrative thread that Luke is so careful to build up in this Gospel: that from the passion for justice and the legacy of Mary’s own low state that brought Magnificat to her lips -- You have cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, you have scattered the proud in their conceit -- when once she knew of the coming Christ her son, to the lonely out-of-doors homeless midnight roadside birth of the child, and now to the humiliation of having to ask for the poverty exemption at the Temple, Jesus comes first into the world in the midst of the extremity of the needs of people who never get a break. And the demands which people make on God require a hearing. Jesus comes first to the places where people born of this world but who are not welcome in it turn to God only for relief. Indeed, all of history has turned with those same waiting, expectant and needful eyes toward God, and that yearning, that need, has ignited everywhere the religious enterprise. Because this world cannot of itself heal itself.
Not in the first century and not in the twenty-first. The need for salvation or to look upon God is never less in any time than in any other time, and the passions of Mary which give voice to the Magnificat are as easily inflamed today. The levels of childhood poverty in America are so alarming right now that they cover our nation in shame. We have seen in our own day a resurgence of overtly racist language in the public square and in public discourse which seems to wrench us out of the day in which we thought we lived and throw us back to an earlier ugliness we hoped we were overcoming. A quarter of all the people on earth who are in prison are in prison in America. Divisions unprecedented in modern time among the rich and the middle class, and the middle class and the poor -- the “wealth gap” -- hold everyone rich and poor hostage to a destructive and demeaning economic knot in which no one can prosper. Everywhere is war. Every border crowded with refugees.
The Marys and Simeons of the world never stop looking for and looking to God. The world never runs out of reasons to need the church to be in the world. But if there is anything I want to tell you today it is this: that the world needs the church to be the church.
You know that there is a great deal of concern among us in our time about our institutional health and the indifference with which we seem to be held by the larger culture about us. The church is smaller than it used to be. God knows. A whole lot of our parishes are struggling with too few people and not enough money, and are telling me about that. And by and large we’re too old. Anxiety about the future of the church consumes so much of our energy. But I am as sure of this as I am of anything, that we are worried about the wrong things. I don’t believe that the greatest threat to the church is the indifference or disinterest with which we seem to be held by others. Of course we are. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Many are called but few are chosen. It is extraordinary hubris for any institution, even one professing to hold claim to the purposes of God, to imagine or expect that the world would be drawn to us just because we are. Or to imagine that the world would turn to us just because the claims we make are so bold. No. The greatest threat to the church is our own temptation to think that what we do is ordinary. Or the trap of falling hostage to our own low expectations of ourselves and, by implication, of God.
We’ll work on our institutional challenges, but we don’t need to worry about them. I’m already in conversations with leaders of churches in Eastern Dutchess and Putnam counties, and parishes in lower Ulster. And I’m going soon to Mount Vernon. Yonkers, put a candle in the window, because we have a date before long too. We’re going to create new structures that I am confident can provide a platform of stability for the real work and mission of the church. We’re going to be OK. But what we do need to worry about is doing those things by which we may and will reveal the truth we have received of God, and those things which would satisfy Simeon’s longing, searching eyes and answer Mary’s passionate convictions. Because the sons of Simeon and the daughters of Mary are our mission field. And they are serious people. And they ask a lot. That they might look upon the savior, that they might know God.
When I spoke to our convention in November I told you that after I became bishop we would inaugurate a diocesan-wide conversation under the rubric of Indaba. Now this will be the work of the coming year. And the questions that we will address are these: If as I believe the world desperately needs the church to be the church, what does that mean for us in the places where we are and in the contexts in which God has planted us? What does it mean to be the church? What and who are we? What is this strange unworldly calling, when we are compelled to be the church and what are those things which God requires of us which only we can do?
We are going to find much diversity among us in the specifics of those conversations, because we minister in such widely varying communities and among so many different peoples. But I suspect that we will find at the core of who we are and what we are called to be and what that means for the decisions we make every day about our common life much, much more that we share. I expect that we will find much to learn from one another and I hope we will discover new ways that we can be resources and encouragements for one another. I think it will be interesting. I suspect it will be important. And I am sure that if it is worth doing, it is worth having a good time while we’re doing it.
And it’s all good news. I know our churches very well, and I have seen everywhere the heroic struggle of small parishes in stressed declining working class communities to bring hope and dignity to those whose lives seem to be coming undone. People in the urban centers of our diocese every day engage the struggle to survive, but still face down the scourge of gun violence and bury their dead and rise again to make their case another day, and this long before anyone heard of Aurora or Newtown. The largest resource parishes of our diocese provide nurture in the faith which are virtual colleges of Christian instruction, and give sacrificially to make things happen in places of need across the world as only they can do. Immigrants from every continent find community, welcome and comfort in our churches. From parishes all over the diocese came people who had never been to Staten Island and didn’t know how to get there, to muck out homes and carry away the debris from Hurricane Sandy. Hundreds handed out food and water and gave shelter to the newly homeless. I saw in this cathedral church in 1999 the thirtieth anniversary celebration of Stonewall, and today through the witness and courage and faith and patience of so many in our churches we have achieved marriage equality. We are all the same before our altars. I can take you to parishes where mentally challenged young people serve regularly at the altar as acolytes and are thereby afforded the dignity of community leadership and the grace of selfless service that make for full and rich lives. Thousands in our cities and towns are fed, sheltered and educated by our churches every day. I have seen with these eyes of mine our people and our churches living the life of Christ and making Christ known by what we do.
Is it not this that we mean when we speak of what it means to be the church? Is it not to see lives coming gloriously back to life, to watch the eyes of a Simeon or a Mary shine with the reflected light of the glory of God and know that they have looked upon the fulfillment of the promises and purposes of God and been made able, empowered, and permitted to arrive, to abide and to go in peace? All these things are miracles and wonders, grace upon grace, truth upon truth, given before these eyes of mine and those eyes of yours.
So we do not lose heart. We know that the odds are against us, but so have they ever been. And strangely, that too is the good news. Amen.
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