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Sermon At the Seating of the Bishop at Trinity & St. Philip's Cathedral

The Rt. Rev. Mark M. Beckwith, Bishop of Newark

From the ancient world through the middle ages, cities were surrounded by walls, for protection and cohesion. Entrance into the city during the day was through a large monitored gate. At night people came into the city through the eye of a needle – which was narrow passageway through the wall, just wide enough for one person and/or one camel to pass through unarmed.

In the Gospel for today and for tonight, the devil dangles three temptations in front of a famished and fatigued Jesus: the temptation to be magical by turning stones into bread; the temptation to be powerful by ruling over the world; and the temptation to be spectacular by throwing himself down from the top of the temple in some kind of pyrotechnic display. To say yes to any of these things would create a permanent first century firewall between the humanity of Jesus and his divinity, to the degree that he would never fully be able to be among the people again. No gate, no eye of the needle – no bridge.

Jesus says no to the devil’s temptations. He was not willing to sacrifice his humanity for what he could sense was a demonic – and illusory, combination of magic and power. He would not build any walls. Instead, he tells the devil – and he instructs us, that his purpose is to create as many gates and build as many bridges in and over walls as possible. To bring people in who have long been pushed out – lepers, widows, Gentiles, the poor the sick the blind and the lame.

We are not so resistant to the temptation to put up barriers. While it is no longer the case that walls are built around cities, we have in recent centuries become very effective in erecting various sorts of walls within them – in order to protect and keep out – and demean.

There were no physical walls in the Jim Crow south. They weren’t necessary: the ruthless and heavy hammered laws of segregation more than made up for anything that could be physically built. In the north, by taking up residency in a Chicago tenement, Martin Luther King demonstrated to that city – and the entire country, that different but no less isolating walls had been politically constructed to keep people separate.

In Newark – and in cities across New Jersey, churches created racial barriers. In the early 20th century, the people of color at Grace Church in Orange were invited to leave. At Christ Church in Hackensack – in 1926, when the sixth African American family joined the parish, a week later, the leaders of Christ Church helped the people of color start their own church -- which became St. Cyprian’s, because that is what they wanted – or so the early annals of Christ Church recorded it. While serving as Rector of Christ Church, I remember meeting a few of the original members of St. Cyprian’s – who have a very different – and distressed, memory of the last Sunday they were allowed in their original church.

We are gathered this afternoon at Trinity and St. Philip’s Cathedral – a joining of two churches, St. Philip’s, which was all black – and Trinity, which was all, or mostly white. I don’t know if the people of St. Philip’s were asked to leave another congregation (as was the case in Orange and Hackensack), but I do know the people of St. Philip’s were invited to become a part of Trinity in 1966 – not as an act of hospitality but to help fill the mainly empty pews because of one of the initial waves of white flight.

There is a lot of excitement in the city of Newark now. I don’t know if the arrival of the NJPAC was the genesis of it – or the most visible and spectacular example of it – which many of us fully took in at the Consecration service 29 days ago. Newark is coming back. Capital investment is flowing in. It is a revitalized city. It is exciting. And part of that excitement has to do with the fact that – after decades – the racial walls have more gates in them and more bridges over them – not enough, but progress has been made. But as those walls are becoming less intimidating, a new economic wall may be taking its place. As the money comes in – everything gets more expensive. As new people come into the city to rent and buy housing at the escalating market rate, people with limited or marginal means – find that this emerging market is beyond their reach, and end up being squeezed into a tighter, and more hidden and stressed areas of the city.

In June of 1987, in a speech in front of the Wall that divided Germany and cleaved the city of Berlin in two, President Reagan said six words I admired him for (and are some of the few words I admired him for): “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

I admire the line – to a point. Because while it is important and just – and necessary to tear down walls that separate and intimidate and demean people – we also need to acknowledge the human family’s history with temptation: as soon as one wall is torn down – another, less visible and more insidious wall, is put up somewhere else. It is what we do. It is what we have always done. We have always been easy prey to this kind of temptation.

Jesus knew the folly of spending too much energy trying to tear down walls. Jesus knew that the Romans built nearly impregnable walls. Jesus was aware of the resources the Romans deployed to defend them, and he saw – more times than he cared to count, the wrath and ruthlessness the Romans employed on anyone who tried to tear those down.

Jesus didn’t try and tear down walls. He was much more creative. A creativity that demonstrated his genius. He built gates – so that people could physically and psychically move in and out. He constructed spiritual bridges that enabled people – all people, to walk up and over any wall or barrier that those who ruled with force and fear put up. That’s where his energy went. That’s where his genius and compassion were directed.

The challenge for us as Christians is to creatively build as many gates as we can – inviting any and all people to freely move in and out. Cities have always been centers of creativity and diversity. Instead of using the creativity to deny the diversity (the red-lining of urban neighborhood is one of the most diabolically creative examples of that), we need to use the Christ centered creativity to build more gates for the diversity to display its full flower. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the 13th century, “diversity is the perfection of the universe.”

Build more gates. You don’t need to be a building engineer to figure out that if you put in enough gates in a structure, the walls was eventually crumble from lack of support.

And if you can’t build gates, start constructing bridges and walkways – to help people move freely up and over. And you don’t need to be an architect to figure out that if you put up enough bridges and walkways, the walls begin to disappear – and after a time, the walls lose their importance. When we put in gates and build bridges – not only are we exposed to the glory of greater diversity, we become more aware of where else God is working – and are better able to live in the spirit of ubuntu, as described by Archbishop Tutu in the second reading

One of the great bridges designed and originally constructed by this Cathedral is St. Philip’s Academy – which was originally around the corner, then moved down the street – and last month settled in up the hill in its newly refurbished building. It is a remarkable bridge – and gate, between the best of private school education, and a student body that would otherwise be stonewalled by economic realities to receive it. Secondarily, this Cathedral has built bridges and established relationships and put in gates between people whose lives are framed by the city of Newark and people whose world is the suburbs.

Parenthetically, and perhaps paradoxically, and probably shamelessly, I would invite you to help support the walls of this Cathedral by seriously considering the opportunity to pledge to its renovation. It needs to be an even more visible citadel of hope and creativity in the center of the city – and the center of the diocese. We need its spire to gleam with the fire of faith – and to reflect this congregation’s and the Diocese of Newark’s desire to build bridges and put in gates – and crumble walls.

Build on the creativity. To this Cathedral – and to the congregations of the diocese, I challenge you to be creative and build more gates to diversity – and celebrations of diversity. Acknowledge whatever history you may have that erected walls of distance and separation – but please, please – spend most of your energy absorbing and following Jesus’ genius for providing new models of hospitality, which creates more community – and releases greater ubuntu.

As I challenge the Cathedral and congregations of the diocese, I also want to challenge myself. A couple of months before the Consecration, several people recommended that I have my seating after the service at the Cathedral. I thought – why not. Quite honestly, I thought that the seating involved taking a few formal pictures – and maybe a few candids; and it would be done here because – well, it wouldn’t cost anything to use the space, and it has a better ecclesiastical look than NJPAC.

Then I learned what this all involved. The first three times I have been in this space as bishop I was not afforded the option in that big chair back there. It wasn’t mine yet. A few minutes ago, I was graciously and formally seated in that chair. It’s now my seat. I’m told no one else can sit there – although it is large enough that two of us probably could.

It’s big seat. Being diocesan bishop is an important role – for spiritual, sacramental, pastoral and organizational leadership. It is an honor and privilege to be accorded the bishop’s seat in this Cathedral – and for Bishop Gallagher and me to be invited in the Bishop’s chairs in the churches across the diocese.

But there has been, in the history of the church, a temptation to give in to the construction of an ecclesiastical wall between bishop and clergy, bishop and lay people, clergy and laypeople. In one of my first Sunday visitations to a congregation in the diocese, I gathered a group of young children together and began showing and describing my ecclesiastical trousseau. When I showed them my ring, I asked them why they thought I had it. And in two milliseconds, a five year old blurted out – “because you are a king.”

No, I told him – but I could sense the beginnings of a new wall. And that wall can be intentionally or unconsciously put up by people in any of the orders of ministry – laypeople, deacons, priests, and bishops. We don’t need that.

Instead of tearing them down, let us acknowledge them, honor them where and when the need to be honored. But please, please – let us put in gates and build bridges with and for one another. And together, let us build a bridge and put in a gate between all of us and the living Christ.