Six months ago, I was invited to preach yesterday, November 4 at General Theological Seminary. Here is my sermon.
In September 2007, Archbishop Rowan Williams came to our House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans. He began his introductory remarks with a story from the early days of World War 1. British and German troops were burrowed in trenches, a cannon shot away from each other. During a lull in the fighting, a senior British officer reportedly asked in some desperation, “How did we wind up here?”
Nearly 100 years later, Archbishop Williams was asking the same question of the Anglican Communion. The Lambeth conference was less than a year away, and many bishops from parts of the communion were already saying that they weren’t coming; an alternative Conference of bishops (we might call them dissidents, and I can assure you that's what they called us); and discussions were being held in London as whether or not Gene Robinson should be included (a few months later Gene was officially disinvited).
After painting this brief, honest and rather grim picture, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori got up to welcome Archbishop Williams; and drawing on her amazing ability of recall, reminded all of us of the 1914 Christmas truce, when unarmed British and German soldiers came out of the trenches, shook hands and sang Christmas carols. It was a remarkable sign of hope at a bleak and dangerous time. Her story suggested that our common ancient faith was deeper and more uniting than the nationalism that tore the world asunder. The ancient faith was – and is, invested with mercy and justice and reconciliation; and the implication was that all those elements, which are eternal gifts from God, are still very much alive – and still had the capacity to bind us together nearly 100 years later in 2007; despite all that was pulling us apart.
For some of you here this evening, the World War I trench example may feel a bit too dramatic – and an overreach for what has gone at General these past few weeks. For others the trench warfare may be exactly what it feels – or at least looks, like; and for still others there is the very human desire that it all just go away. I have not been following the particulars of what has been happening here – and the commentary of what has been happening; but I do know there has been a lot of pain, anger and sadness for everyone involved.
"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus" St. Paul tells his friends in Philippi, the first lesson for this evening. It took a while for the twelve disciples to get beyond confusion and ego in order to embrace the mind of Christ, but they eventually got there. It is my conviction that the mind of Christ was the mysterious and wonderful Christmas gift that infiltrated the hearts and minds of British and German soldiers in 1914. It didn’t last but a few hours, but the world remembers it over a hundred years later.
St. Paul goes on: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus… who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8) Now we can say that Jesus was destined to empty himself. We can say that Jesus knew the Resurrection was on the other side of the crucifixion. But to get there required a lot of work. A lot of human work, involving ego and fear and ambivalence, as he went through pain and sadness and betrayal and torture and all the rest.
We give thanks that Jesus went through all of that; that he emptied himself – literally to death. And from that abyss God exalted him – “and gave him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9).
We are here tonight because Jesus emptied himself. Those of you on the journey to ordination, for those of us who are ordained, for those of us – which is all of us, who have dared be followers of Jesus, we are here because he emptied himself. We give thanks that Jesus emptied himself, and in faith we are here because he continues to empty himself.
In the Eucharist Jesus empties his life into ours. And when we come to the table we bring all our stuff – the hurt, the sadness, the loss, all that which undermines life – and leave it at the altar, and we take back Jesus' life. Because he emptied himself.
How long does that new life last? A few hours maybe; a couple of days, never more than a week. And so we come back – a lifetime of coming back and being filled with the life and mind and heart of Christ.
But before we come to receive Christ, who empties himself into us, we exchange the peace. I have a problem with how we describe that. Not the peace itself – but the terminology. The exchange of peace sounds like some sort of dance step, a liturgical a ‘do si do’, and sometimes it feels like that. No, we make peace. In the name of the self emptying Christ, we make peace.
I remember when the peace was reintroduced into the liturgy. It was 1971 or so; and I was in college. And I remember my father saying that he thought the peace was some sort of PR gimmick invented by the national church to thaw out the frozen chosen Episcopalians. He didn’t like it. Most people didn’t like it. It felt like an intrusion. When “the Peace of the Lord be always with you” was said, some people immediately sat down. Others walked out. But we have kept at it – and over the past 40 years the peace has indeed thawed us out. In many of our churches, the Peace is the longest part of the worship service.
But the peace is not primarily about the celebration of community, welcome though that is. The peace is about reconciliation. It is a reenactment of Matthew 5, when Jesus commands – not suggests, but commands his followers to first make peace with their brother or sister before bringing their gift to the altar. It is a symbolic moment in the liturgy when we demonstrate – to God and to the gathered community, that whatever divides us, whatever sends us into trenches, we can be brought together by Christ. We demonstrate that in the Peace. And the person we exchange the peace with symbolically represents someone we need to make peace with. And if the person standing next to us is the person we live with, often that is the person we most need to make peace with. Sometimes it is hard. Sometimes we don’t want to do it. And we do it anyway, because no matter what, what separates us can be brought together through the reconciling love of the living Christ. The living Christ is always at work to bring people together If I didn't believe that, if you don't believe that, you and I should get out of this business faster than we can say the Nicene Creed.
The peace is an act of emptying. Emptying ourselves of our ego so we can get to the soul and have the possibility of entering a peace “that surpasses all understanding.” That also requires a lot of work – for Jesus and for us. The ego is committed to preserving order, resistant to change and is averse to risk. The ego is necessary – it gets us up in the morning and helps us get our papers in on time. The ego helps us sequence and carry out our unending array of tasks.
We see the ego in full display in this evening's Gospel. Various people – important people, are invited to a feast. But they make excuses why they can’t come. They have something more valuable to do that will enhance their status, and inflate their egos. One wants to look over his recently purchased land, another says he needs to check out his five new yokes of oxen, and the other has a new bride.
So the master gets fed up and tells his slaves to go and invite the poor, the crippled the blind to and the lame. People who are visibly vulnerable. People who have presumably been emptied beyond their ego and are more available to their soul.
The soul is open and creative. It is in the soul where love is born and develops. The ego is protective of turf and tribe. The soul is vulnerable and open to transformation.
The ego can be a barrier. It can keep us in trenches; and challenges to or an inflation of the ego can lead us to say the arrogant and dangerous statement: God is on my side.
The only side God has ever been on is God's side. It is hubris to think we can call God into alignment with our projects and our agenda. That God works for us. No, we align ourselves with God. It takes work – a lot of emptying work. The soul has an awareness of that. So does the Holy Spirit. The soul and the Spirit are each committed to guiding us, supporting us – teaching us, how to do that life giving, reconciling work.
May it be so.
sermon at GTS
I like the fact that you mentioned several times that it takes a lot of work.
It moves saying statements like "be at peace with one another" from a platitude to an action.
GTS Sermon by +Mark Beckwith
As a GTS graduate of many years ago I believe that Bishop Beckwith's sermon should fall into the annals of one of the best sermons preached at GTS. We are reminded and his words remind us, as I was taught at GTS, that the work is not about us, but the emptying power of Christ to transform the world into a better and more Grace filled existence which is what God chooses for us. I have never doubted the resolve of GTS to deal with serious and life threatening issues and +Mark's words echo that resolve. I have no concern or am I anxious about what God is doing at GTS. I could not be more proud of +Mark Beckwith as my Bishop who brings wisdom, understanding and grace to the hallowed walls of a serious and ancient Seminary of the Church. The entire community has been blessed through his presence and as he says, "May it be so."
I can't imagine a better sermon for those students and that community to hear right now. Thank you, +Mark, for bringing this word of God's reconciling love into that place which is torn by personal conflict, resulting in institutional chaos. I do believe that God has a preferential option for the poor, and when we get out of our own way and align ourselves with God's mission, the church, the Body of Christ, is at its very best. Thank you for reminding them - and us all - of this critically important Gospel message.
Peace, awareness, reconciliation
Thank you, Mark. Beautifully written and helpful.
Brilliant and timely words of reminding us of our Gospel mandate.
Sermon at GTS.
Well done ,Mark.How much you have increased in grace and stature since All Saints Worcester
Mark, I think this is a moment of homiletic grace in a place that needs exactly that. Joe
Sermon at GTS
Mark, in a very difficult time, place, and set of circumstances you proclaimed the gospel of reconciliation. How desperately it needs to be heard in connection with the "GTS Affair." It is a masterful and eloquent sermon, and I hope it breaks down a bit of the powerful egos in Chelsea Square, just as I hope it breaks down a bit of my own ego. Thank you.
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