A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond
By The Rev. Lane Denson firstname.lastname@example.org
St. Ann in Nashville, Tennessee. All Saints Sunday 2003
In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. Those handkerchiefs are called saints. [Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, Harper & Row, 1973, p 83]
Some of us, of course, are simply not into handkerchiefs. But we do have a great fondness, say, for the Gross Domestic Product. As it happens, Halloween, which, as you know, has something to do with the saints, also turns out for everybody to be the most lucrative of all our holidays.
So, instead of handkerchiefs, how about the economy? Even the ACLU looks the other way if an occasional witch or pumpkin shows up in the courthouse rotundas.
But we need the saints for more than the economy, as out-of-synch as it is. We need the saints to connect us with all who've gone before, all who have "been there and done that." We need the saints for their community of caring and example. We need the saints for those times like now when we can only whistle in the dark in fear for what lies ahead both in church and state -- which don't seem all that separated at the moment. And what is more, we need the saints for the truly significant moral dimension they add to our lives.
We live in a time of great moral challenge, a time which calls for the very finest in us and in our leaders. And yet, we compromise that challenge and risk by dividing our church and our nation with lesser, self-serving, and even trivial understandings of morality in order merely to assuage our ill-informed fears. And every time we compromise that challenge, we betray God's Great Commandment to love.
When we so conceive and diminish our ministry, we send an embarrassing message of equivocation to a world in moral crisis. It is a message from a church that seems constantly preoccupied with itself and its purity. It reminds me of a high school band leader once telling me to elevate my trumpet and quit playing navel serenades. It is a message from a church that claims to be a keeper of the moral flame and to be a fellowship of the kind of love that casts out fear. With that as our witness, we distort both our message and our purpose for being. So, if some want morality so often on the agenda, let us talk about morality.
We live in relative wealth and comfort while a large part of the world is literally starving and crippled by disease.
How do moral people deal with that?
Unimaginable wealth and devastating poverty exist side-by-side in our own country, in our own neighborhood. Millions live in hunger, have no adequate health care, and have an education system so crippled it can hardly prepare them even to cope with life, let alone be leaders in a modern society. We do little to amend it or even to admit it. But we do spend a few thousands right across the street every other week or so for quite a different purpose.
How do moral people deal with that?
We are systematically dismantling the environment at the pleasure of a few and thus vitiating it for generations to come. We carry out our multilateral relations with unilateral arrogance. We are crippling our great constitutional heritage of checks and balances at the risk of terminating the voices of the people.
How do moral people deal with this?
A church selfish for its own prerogatives and its own ill-informed sense of morality can be neither prophet nor pastor nor priest with such shallow credentials. On the other hand, the church needs its very finest people, people of the caliber of the saints, women and men of courage to lead with integrity, to bear the light Jesus brings into the world, to root out our priggishness, and as the old country preacher said again and again, to "comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable."
This is a time for servant leaders who care deeply for us and for all, regardless of religious commitments or lack of same. We need leaders who are unafraid to be accountable and to stand for justice and peace, and who do not hide behind the grandeur of their moralistic puffery.
The All Saints season is a time for the celebration of such ministry. It is a fitting and traditional time in which we baptize new members -- as we will this morning -- and join with them and their sponsors to renew our own Baptismal Covenant. This covenant commissions us to march with all the saints in this historic apostolic fellowship. It dares us to risk error and to know we are forgiven and reconciled. It charges us to proclaim the good news, to walk the talk, as our colleagues in twelve-step programs unceasingly remind us. It directs us so to know for whom we search as we discern and serve Christ in all persons. And it reminds of one of the greatest needs in our time, to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.
How do moral people deal? To live out this covenant is the way moral people deal.
We are an episcopal church, and some of us are not ashamed of that, even if maybe a little too proud from time to time. We choose women and men from among us as bishops, as servant leaders, with the terrifying task to be our chief priests and pastors and to speak prophetically for us in our time to a world in moral crisis.
Sometimes, this actually happens. We're making a new bishop today up in New Hampshire, and there is a bit of a stir about it, not because the candidate hasn't met all the canonical and other legitimate hurdles, but perhaps because he is honest and open and a leader and a servant, and that is always frightening. Let us not lose touch with our fellow churchers there in our prayers.
One last word about bishops from two of our great servant leaders, words about us all, as well, about priests and deacons and the indomitable and long-suffering laity.
These words, attributed to Helder Pessoa Camara, onetime Archbishop, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Olinda and Recife, are often cited by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold as his understanding of his episcopacy: "The bishop belongs to all. Let no one be scandalized if I frequent those who are considered unworthy or sinful. Who is not a sinner? Let no one be alarmed if I am seen with compromised and dangerous people, on the left or the right. Let no one bind me to a group. My door, my heart must be open to everyone, absolutely everyone."
And John Hines, my own beloved mentor, himself once presiding bishop: "A bishop's job is to keep his church family on the firing line of the world's most desperate needs and to learn to accept the exquisite penalty of such an exposed position."
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