Bishop Dietsche’s 2017 Holy Tuesday Sermon
Preached at the Service of Collegiality, at which the clergy of the diocese gather to renew their ordination vows, on Tuesday, April 11, 2017.
It means more to me than I can say to see you all together. The long procession, and the profound wonder that is your common self-offering. Every week Bishops Shin and Glasspool and I come see you where you are. We sit with your people and break bread with them, and pray together at your altars. We lay hands on those seeking baptism and confirmation. We have the privilege to see everyone in every place, and it is the deepest richness of our lives to be welcomed into the places where you live and minister, to love you all the more by seeing whom you love and your care of them. Once not that long ago, I learned that the correct word for a bunch of bishops is “a bench.” We have a full bench today. Bishops Shin and Glasspool and I are joined by Herbert Donovan, who has been an assisting bishop in this diocese for over twenty years. Also Dan Daniel, formerly the Bishop of East Carolina, who began service here last week as Acting Dean of this cathedral. Dean Wolfe, Bishop of Kansas, is the new rector of Saint Bartholomew’s Church, and Andrew Saint John continues his service at Holy Apostles. And wonderfully, as grace and surprise, we are honored by the presence of the Most Reverend Rowan Williams, the one-time Archbishop of Canterbury. You all make us glad by your presence, and bless us by your company.
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I suppose that the last time we were all together was at our Diocesan Convention last November in Tarrytown. That was three days before our most recent presidential election. It’s been a long five months. It’s been like living in a pinball machine. We have seen our nation divided as we never have. It has been the winter of our discontent and for most of us a time when many things we believed we could take for granted came undone, so it is that now as the days lengthen and the season turns, and we find ourselves again in our annual recapitulation of the Way of the Cross and the Passion of Our Lord, we discover that we are all the more ready to, and hungry to, be re-centered on those principles and truths on which we have built our lives and vocations, and with some need to be reminded of who and what we are.
We are back, to renew the vows and promises we once freely made and by which we were admitted into the ordained ministry of the Episcopal Church. We are deacons, priests and bishops. Some among us still have the fold lines in their brand new clerical shirts and vestments, and others have just about worn through their third or fourth cassock. But whether in the springtime of our vocations, or still in the late autumn, we ask and still ask what this life means, where it comes from, and how even after the service of a few or many years we are to understand the power of the original invitation. Why did we choose it, why do we still, and why does, if we may be so bold, God need it?
This year we are asking those questions in a season in which we must also inquire about the life and role of the ordained minister, and of the church, in the body politic. And a question never far from us has swung around again with renewed urgency, and that is the question of the relationship between the political and the pastoral.
On the day after the election we your bishops sent a letter to the diocese in which, even as we asked prayers for the new president, we observed that “a substantial amount of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign was racist and misogynist, brutal and violent, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and sexually offensive. Too much of his public comment directly contravened the central principles of the Christian ethic and the accepted, shared values and virtues of the Episcopal Church. That rhetoric has occasioned extraordinary alarm. We pray that the heated language of the campaign will not follow him into his presidency or inform his governance, but we also insist: it may not.”
Now we are two and a half months into this presidency, and we are seeing policies that reflect the divisions in our common life that drove the election, and we are seeing Mr. Trump keep too many of even the most malignant promises he made in his campaign.
He promised to overturn the Affordable Care Act, and he is trying to do exactly that. And if he succeeds, with it will go access to health care for millions of poor and working class people, and access to essential health services for women. He promised to gut environmental regulations that protect the creation and which ensure safe air and drinking water for millions of people, and he is doing it. He promised to run the country as a business, and now we are seeing the formulation of policies which turn on the worst excesses of unbridled capitalism. He promised that he would shut the door to refugees, and he has slammed it. He promised that he would deport eleven million undocumented people, and he is making attempt after attempt to do just that. The president is still promising the Mexican Wall, a Muslim registry, and a regressive tax code that will continue the movement of wealth from the many to the few. The gains we were making as Americans to become an ever more egalitarian and generous nation, and to further the progressive vision of protection of the weak and vulnerable, and of equal opportunity, and of equality of all people before the law, have slipped from us more quickly than we ever imagined they could have.
Therefore, in an hour of the renewal of diaconate and priesthood we must first restate the principles of the faith we embrace and the church we serve, exactly as those principles speak to the travails and worries of a body politic which is careening off the rails.
God loves the poor, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ commands us to share the things we have been given with the poor and to feed the hungry, because by doing so we most directly serve God in Christ.
We are taught in the story of the Good Samaritan and throughout the Gospel to sacrifice ourselves for others and to have compassion on the suffering. To love them and take care of them.
We are taught by the example of Jesus’ communion with women and children and old men, with prostitute and pharisee, tax collector and zealot, to insist on the equality and dignity of all people and strive for it. Men and women and children. Straight people and LGBT. Black and white and brown and Asian. Rich and poor, strong and weak.
By the example of a particular Jew who on one day took the cup from the Samaritan woman and on another blessed the Roman centurion we learn that it is possible to make community together with Jew and Muslim and Hindu and Sikh and Buddhist and all the peoples of all the world who as we do worship and pray, give praise, read scriptures, follow commandments, and live their lives by sacred code. And that it is Christian to reach across the divide of religions.
The opening verses of the Bible tell us that we have been given stewardship and care over the natural world, and that we have a responsibility toward the future and toward those who by their poverty or by their bad luck in being born too late will suffer most from environmental collapse.
And we are certain that we have a powerful biblical mandate to welcome, protect, shelter and care for the stranger at the gate and the stranger in our midst. For we were once, at least metaphorically, strangers in Egypt (and in a nation of immigrants it is certain we were strangers somewhere).
It makes me feel good just to enumerate those virtues. It reminds me that this work of transformation we’ve been given to do is important. This is who we are. And the contrast in those values of Godly Power and Worldly Power could not be clearer. Of who we are as Church and what we are as America. And I am certain that for those who have accepted the call to the ordained life, and who have bound their lives to promises of service and proclamation and of the care of the people of God, the ceaseless rehearsal of these Christian principles, and the training of our people in them, and the witness of these principles before the world, and the transformation of peoples by the power of the love from whence these values flow, must be the whole and only thing that we are about.
This is ever so, and I do not believe that such witness and such proclamation is easier for us when we have a president we support than we when have a president we don’t, but I am convinced that in these days when the contrast between the governing doctrines of the world about us and the gospel principles of our faith is drawn as starkly as it is now, and when those things we hold true and those things we love and those things which give our own lives meaning and purpose are revealed to be so much more counter-cultural than we imagined, then we may lift our eyes and look about us and see: The fields are white for the harvest.
In such a time, some of that wider proclamation and witness will be and must be for Christians to fully engage the political life of the larger community. Which we are doing. Christians are joining with people of other faiths across communities to explore the possibilities of sanctuary justice and ecological justice and public advocacy. We are joining in legal actions against the president’s executive orders. And beginning on the day after the inauguration and continuing on, we have been in the streets, that we might make by the witness of our numbers the visible sign that the Christian virtues we hold are human virtues, embraced across cultures and faiths, and that we may together reveal before the world a new coalition of peoples gathered about a set of political values which are at the same time thoroughly consistent with Christian values.
Yet for the Church and its ministers there is something else. And that is to stand in the midst of a helpless and harassed people and raise our ebenezer. It falls to us, because we are the gospelers, to tell the story of God, and our salvation in Jesus Christ. Ancient stories, made ever new. Of the outstretching of the mighty arm and the tender touch of the healing hand, of the old prayerful possibility of a nation of priests and a kingdom of righteousness, and of the claim of Jesus that he came in order that all may be one as he and the Father are one. Everybody all together, everybody being one. So that in the midst of division we may not only make our witness against the principalities which rend people from people, and against the injustices and powers which make division, but also against division itself. And that may be the hardest thing of all. ‘Cause we kind of get off on it.
Yet there are other virtues we hold as Christians. The love of enemy. The seventy times seven standard for the forgiveness of sin. These convictions as well: do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who abuse you. Also: when someone punches you in the face, turn and invite the second punch; share your stuff with people who rob from you; do not be afraid. And: do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I have said that I believe these days will test once again what it means to be Christian. From the inauguration of President Trump to Ash Wednesday our Sunday lectionary walked us through some of the most beautiful, most sublime, and, God help us, most challenging passages from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And I know, because I preached those Sundays too, the temptation to hear them as sound bites or oracles to support the agenda many of us trailed with us when we came into the pulpit. Purity of heart, poverty of spirit, meekness and mercy. Righteousness and peacemaking. It was all so easy. It seemed we had just elected a president who came to office precisely by deriding such principles. It was satisfying to say so. So satisfying that it was easy, speaking only for myself, to be blinded to the possibility that it might be my pride, my disgust, my anger; my easy willingness to anathematize; my delight in partisan division; my readiness to point the finger, that were perhaps standing in judgment too. That I was no closer to real meekness than was Donald Trump. No purer in heart than any of the rest of them.
It may be that in the particular days we have been given, in the place we have been put, we have been given two parallel charges by which to make our Christian witness: On the one hand, to never flag in our advocacy for the little ones of God, to make no peace with injustice, and to never fail to face down the unjust policy of uncaring power, and on the other hand to cultivate by the Spirit within us a more expansive generosity toward those whose convictions we hold reprehensible than we ever imagined ourselves capable. It can be done. It’s been done.
Martin Luther King was that generous. Who after the beatings and firehoses and spitting and humiliations and martyrdoms, and just one year after Bloody Sunday, preached from that pulpit right there [our cathedral pulpit] and said in this room, “Love is the greatest of all the virtues. This is the meaning of the cross, not a meaningless drama on the stage of history but a telescope through which we look out the long distance of eternity and see the love of God breaking through into time. It is an eternal reminder of the power of love over hate.” And who on the night before he was assassinated referred to those who would on the next day shoot bullets through him as “our brothers.”
The Martyrs of Charleston were that generous. They welcomed the young white stranger with the blank expression and scary eyes into their midst as a Christian brother, and after he killed nine of them rose up and refused to condemn but instead gave pardon. They laid down their claim because they were well practiced in the art and the science of the Christian life.
And now, moments before we renew our own vows, I want to say that such a practiced Christian life, such study and discipline, and that same Jesus kind of generosity, is the particular and unique and essential calling of those who accept ordained ministry. Or we are mere functionaries.
Let’s stop feeding our sermons from the internet. Let’s turn off the maddening, relentless chatter of Facebook. Get to a quiet place every day and study the gospel of Jesus Christ. There you will find everything you need. And anyway, there was a time when we promised we would do just that, and today we have come to renew that promise. If we want to change the world, and I think we do, it’s the most important promise we can keep. Amen.