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Sermon at the Consecration of Carlye J. Hughes as the 11th Bishop of Newark

The Rev. Brenda G. Husson preaching at the consecration. NINA NICHOLSON PHOTO
The Rev. Brenda G. Husson, Rector, St. James’ Church, New York, NY
The Rev. Brenda G. Husson preaching at the consecration. NINA NICHOLSON PHOTO

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Ruth 1:1-18
1 Timothy 3:1-7
John 20:19-23

I think we need to begin with a song I expect all of us know. “If you’re happy and you know it….” [The congregation claps – loudly.] Yes, that is how it goes, but we are in the house of the Lord today so I think we might change it up a bit. “If you’re happy and you know it – say AMEN.” [Which the congregation does – loudly.]

You know who else is happy? Who else is saying Amen today? That would be God. Not just because Carlye Juanita Hughes heard the Spirit’s call to stand for election and the people of this Diocese heard the same Spirit calling for her election, though God is always pleased when God’s people pay attention. Amen to that for sure. But there’s even more.

Just 156 years ago, and in God’s time, 156 years is nothing, just 156 years ago, on September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln announced that he would order the emancipation of slaves in 1863. So by all means, let’s ordain Carlye Juanita Hughes Bishop of Newark on this date; that anniversary. For good measure, today our Lutheran brothers and sisters are consecrating Patricia Davenport, another African American woman, bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. God is having a good day. So are we.

And given this anniversary, I can’t help but hear St. Paul’s declare, “For freedom, Christ has set us free.” “For freedom Christ has set us free. “

So what is the nature of that emancipation? When Carlye takes vows in a few minutes, when we all agree to support her in her ministry, we make binding promises. And she’ll be vested not just in great clothes, but with ecclesiastical authority and the power to provide pastoral direction, phrases that may not immediately bring to mind the release of the captives.

But freedom is the point: In those promises we make, in the pastoral direction and in the authority that Carlye will have. We know that, because that is what the scriptures tell us and that is what Jesus shows us. Freedom is the point, freedom intended for each person and all the world.

Unlike President Lincoln’s proclamation, none of these scriptures take place on a large scale or a big venue. And large as this venue is, we know that the Episcopal Church, even where it’s flourishing does not command the world stage (except when a royal wedding is involved – thank you Bishop Curry!). We’re small stuff. Which puts us in good company. Very good company.

Consider those ten terrified men Jesus came to visit on Easter morning. (remember neither Thomas nor Judas was there that morning). They were a tiny group. In a locked room in the Roman backwater that was Jerusalem. It was hardly the place you’d expect to find faithful disciples, let alone freedom fighters. But that’s where Jesus goes. Into that small room; to those scared men, knowing they have failed in every possible way – from misunderstanding Jesus’ ministry to running for cover when crucifixion came for him. But that’s who he chooses. That’s who he breathes the Spirit into, that’s the bunch to whom he gives authority to forgive –or not to forgive – others. A tiny band, a few minutes in a locked room. And they changed the world.

Paul’s letter to Timothy about bishops seems petty compared to that: are submissive and respectful children really the goal? (This, by the way, is unachievable in my experience. But then Paul never had children, did he?) Yet Paul has a point: You can’t lead, you can’t be faithful in your discipleship, if that discipleship doesn’t shape your personal life. Being a Christian leader – the vocation every single baptized person has been given – is not a role. It’s a life, a life that is meant to be shaped by Christ or at least the striving for a life shaped by Christ - and visible. Calling us to shape our lives, private as well as public, according to what we believe is pastoral direction. In this era of #Metoo, with sexual misconduct in the highest reaches of our government, in the workplace and too many churches, when inequality ois known in every part of life – this is not petty at all.

But it’s Ruth’s story that sings the song of freedom most clearly and Ruth’s story that touches Carlye’s heart and shapes her discipleship. It may seem insignificant: after all it’s just about three widowed women. Orpah and Ruth can stay in Moab and hope for new husbands and a renewed life. Naomi can return to Israel where there is food, but no family to take her in. But then we hear Ruth’s powerful words as she, though from Moab, chooses to go with Naomi. To go with Naomi who she loves into a land she has never seen to live among a people she does not know, who worship a God of whom she has only heard tell: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people”.

Ruth, this outsider from Moab, is willing to risk everything for love. Her words to Ruth are a foretaste of the Gospel; they tell the tale of Jesus’ relationship to us. For Jesus goes where we go, even if where we must go is into death; dwells where we dwell, even if he must leave heaven behind and enter into closed rooms and locked down lives. Jesus commits himself to our human life that he might raise us up to the life of God, until we know that his Father in heaven is the Mother and Father of us all.

Ruth and Jesus declare that anyone and everyone has the capacity to be the instrument of God’s grace for this world. Disciples from a locked room can become apostles who preach boldly, not because they have never known fear but because the Spirit of God has breathed new life into them. The priest and parishioners struggling to keep a parish or their own families intact in the Lord, show what the virtue of a righteous life is. And we can take those risks because Jesus has shown us that there is no place we ever need travel alone. Where we lodge, he will lodge.

What does this have to do with Carlye Hughes? Everything. Because I can tell you two things about Carlye; the two things that matter most. First, she loves Jesus and knows Jesus loves her. It is why she can be tough as nails, weep with those who weep and laugh out loud. The other thing is that she loves you. I can’t explain it and goodness knows it’s not true of every priest or Bishop, but Carlye responds to the people of God as if she has been given a basket of puppies for Christmas. She loves you. She just loves you.

Because she loves you and loves Jesus she will not let you stay locked in. She will not let you stay in a familiar country if there is nothing for you there when there is new life to be had in a new land, even if it’s a land you have not yet seen. Nor will she let you stay in a house that is disordered by fear. But she will rejoice with you and all the angels in heaven when you choose life and freedom. That is the woman you have chosen as your Bishop.

If that makes you happy and you know it – say Amen.