141st Convention Address
The Rt. Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal
November 14, 2015
Christ Church, Dayton
Text: Matthew 9:35-38
As you may have noticed, everything at this convention is about connection. Not because I said it should be — it just seems to be in the air.
But as you know, connection has an upside and a downside. God hard-wired us for connection. We’re not happy unless we’re in relationship with other people. Yet connection can also be dangerous. We’re very vulnerable to one another. We can’t really say that we make connections, since we’re always already connected with one another, whether we like it or not. Sometimes we religious people are tempted to view salvation as an escape from connection. It’s especially easy for Episcopalians to think that, while it would be good for the kingdom of God to be full of people, it might be nice if each of us could still have our own individual and solitary relationship with God.
This morning, many of us are grieving and frightened by what is happening in France. It’s a scary thing to think about a country closing its borders. That sounds like wartime. It is certainly yet another reminder that connection can be scary. France is close to us because the whole world is small now. We can’t pretend that we can hide and run away from things that frighten us. We can’t run away from evil, and we can’t run away from sin. We always knew we couldn’t run away from it in ourselves, but now we know we can’t run away from it in the world as a whole. So we need to cling to the good news of God and Jesus Christ: salvation isn’t escape from connection. It is connection redeemed.
That is why we gather Sunday by Sunday by Sunday, learning how to get along with each other, learning how to forgive each other, learning how to be patient with one another. Sometimes we get to know each other well enough to challenge one another to stay true to the faith. And when we come to church full of doubt, we know that there are people there full of faith who will hold us up. That’s what church is all about.
And that’s also what the gospel reading that we just heard is all about. Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Now, it’s very easy to think about that as church growth. Let’s get that harvest into our pews! We’re all worried about shrinking, so we want to grow. But that’s not what this passage is about. Jesus says that we should pray for the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into the harvest, but that command is preceded by his compassion for the crowds, who he says are “like sheep without a shepherd.” The Greek word we translate as “having compassion” is stronger. Literally the sentence reads: “He looked at the crowds, and his guts were moved.” He was that touched and upset. Moreover, he was quoting Numbers 27:17, in which Moses has just learned that the people of Israel are about to cross over into the Promised Land without him. God says to Moses (I’m paraphrasing here): ‘You don’t get to go; you’re going to die first. Go up to the top of the mountain range and take a look at where they’re going.’ Then Moses says: ‘Please, raise up a successor to follow me. I don’t want this people to be like sheep without a shepherd.’
Jesus is quoting Moses. That’s how we know he’s not talking about church growth. He doesn’t care about that. He’s talking about leadership, and the people’s need for it. You all know what leadership is about – here is a whole room full of leaders. Leadership is about connection. We define leaders as those who are able to bring us together.
Leaders don’t suck the air out of the room. Leaders don’t do things instead of other people. Leaders bring people together and authorize everybody, giving everybody the confidence and the strength to be ministers of the gospel. We talk a lot about the ministry of the baptized, but that ministry cannot be raised up without leaders who can encourage every member of the church to take the good news of Christ into the world. We are all authorized and empowered to be laborers in the vineyard. That vineyard is not a realm of potential growth for the church. It’s the world itself: the world the way it is – a world full of terrorists, full of homeless people, full of sick people, full of frightened people, full of people who don’t know that God exists, or don’t know that God loves them.
Engaging with that world is something we as Episcopalians do well at our best. It’s in our DNA to embrace connection. Every Christian tradition has its own gift, and that’s our gift. We like to talk to each other; we like to collaborate; we like to partner with all kinds of people — as we saw and heard over and over again yesterday, whether we were talking about Episcopal Retirement Homes or the Episcopal Community Service Foundation or our young adults living in intentional community. The theme of partnership with our neighbors was everywhere.
That’s our gift. But when we flee from exercising it, when we resist partnership, when we resist conversation, when we don’t talk to each other about our faith, when we don’t reach out and connect with the neighborhoods that are around us, we go to seed. Individually or collectively, it’s always bad news for us if we run from the mission God has equipped us to perform. We are being called as the Episcopal Church throughout this nation and seventeen other countries to take up again the gift that God has given us, which is the embrace of connection. We must do this even at the risk of being changed, since, as we all know, engagement with others changes us as much as it changes them.
Now, for my sins, I am preaching today on the festival of Samuel Seabury, the first American bishop. I didn’t choose it, it just turned out that way. Yet his story exemplifies why it is in our DNA to embrace connection.
This is an address as well as a sermon. Therefore this is going to be a little longer than usual, so bear with me. You know, or can imagine, that when we won the American Revolution, there were a lot of Anglicans in the former colonies that didn’t know what to do. Many of them fled to what is now Canada, Nova Scotia for the most part. Those who stayed here had to figure out how they were going to be Anglicans in a republic.
This seemed unthinkable, because the Church of England was so deeply tied to monarchy. But when the episcopalians (small “e” so far) pulled back the patina of monarchy from the Book of Common Prayer, they discovered that it was not essentially about monarchy or hierarchy of any kind. It was about the embrace of connection. Thomas Cranmer, who produced the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, had imagined the whole of England like a monastery turned inside out, so that every aspect of ordinary life could be seen as sacred, holy, and redeemed. Thus there were episcopalians in the fledgling United States (still small “e” — the first General Convention hadn’t happened yet) saying, “Look, we could be a reformed Catholic church in the Republic, and teach this new nation how to embrace connection right along with us.”
Now, of course there were also Anglicans who said, “This is a good opportunity to get rid of bishops, and not to bother with dioceses,” — which, I can tell you, are a lot of work. It’s much easier to remain totally parochial, to stick to our parishes and look no further. But we’re not about that. We’re about always looking further. We’re about partnership and connection.
In Connecticut there was a critical mass of clergy that believed there should be dioceses and bishops, and they got together in a private home and elected one of their number to go to England and get himself consecrated as a bishop. Well, he refused – too much trouble. Their second choice was Samuel Seabury, who said, “Yes, I’ll go.” So he sailed, leaving his family behind, leaving his parish behind, leaving everything behind. He made the dangerous voyage to England, and when he reached London he petitioned parliament to allow him to be consecrated as a bishop for America. They refused because he could not make an oath of loyalty to the king.
(There’s some an irony here, since Samuel Seabury had been a British loyalist all through the American Revolution. In fact, he was a chaplain to the British army. But when we won the war, he accepted that fact and gave himself wholeheartedly to the challenge of being an Anglican in a republic.)
[su_pullquote align=”right”]As Isaiah says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19).[/su_pullquote]
What did he do next? He said, “I know that there are illegal bishops in Scotland.” The established church is Scotland was Presbyterian, but there were Anglicans there, and there were bishops. Not only were they illegal, because they weren’t supposed to have bishops in a Presbyterian country, but they were also non-jurors. That is, these were bishops who were in a line with bishops in England a century or so earlier who had refused to accept the coronation of King George I of Hanover as a successor to James II. James had been deposed because he was Roman Catholic, and the non-juror bishops, although they were staunch Protestants, did not believe the rules of royal succession should be broken for political reasons. So they refused to swear fealty to George I. As a result, they were all fired, and many of them fled to Scotland. This was the line of bishops that Samuel Seabury went looking for.
Seabury travelled on horseback from London to Scotland, and found those bishops, who agreed to consecrate him. So he came back to the United States. By that time parliament had changed its mind and made it legal for bishops to be consecrated for America. So the rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia, and the rector of Trinity, Wall Street, both went to England and were consecrated, and then we had three bishops, which was enough for us to start making our own bishops. That’s another ancient rule about connection – it takes three bishops to ensure accountability and catholicity in the sense of the whole church being connected and involved in a consecration — hence apostolic succession: a clear line back to the beginning.
There’s one more piece of the story about Samuel Seabury that often is not told. The Scottish bishops made him promise that when he came back to the United States, if we developed a prayer book of our own, he would make sure that their prayer book was our model.
Now, these bishops were all scholars, and mostly they were liturgical scholars. They were very interested in Eastern Orthodoxy, and they noticed in the Eastern Orthodox prayer of consecration an element that had fallen out of the tradition of the western church. It’s called the epiclesis, a Greek word that means “invoking over.” It refers to the invocation of the Holy Spirit over the gifts of bread and wine. Pay attention in this service and you’ll hear that part. When I place my hands over the bread and wine and ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit to sanctify the bread and wine, and us, that’s the epiclesis.
For the Scottish bishops, the epiclesis was really important. Why? Because it is a reminder that the consecrated bread and wine is not something we passively receive. We are the bread and wine that is being transformed into the Body of Christ. In union with him, and because of his death and resurrection for our sake, we can offer ourselves up to the Father in all our sinfulness, all our sadness, all our grief, all our fear, and ask the Holy Spirit to descend on us to make us a redeemed and connected community, so that we can serve the world in Christ’s name.
The Scottish bishops had rediscovered the significance of this invocation of the Holy Spirit, and they wanted it to be part of our prayer book. And so it is that at every Eucharist we pray words to this effect: ‘Father, send your Holy Spirit on these gifts, that they may become for us the body and blood of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ’ – that we may not merely be passive recipients of his body and blood, but participants in the glory of his death and resurrection, empowered and authorized to bring redeemed community into the world.
As you all know, “Behold the New” is our model for this convention. The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing among us. The Holy Spirit is calling the Episcopal Church, and this diocese to listen for the sound of the Holy Spirit in our midst, to look for the signature of the Holy Spirit in everything that links us, to notice where partnerships in ministry are already happening, to see how all these partnerships fit together. What is the new map of the diocese? How can we build on that? Deaneries were supposed to help us precipitate diocesan life locally. How can we do that organically? When we go back to the convention center we will give ourselves over to conversation about areas of partnership that might bring Marietta and Piqua, Portsmouth and Delaware, into sync with one another.
We’re a big diocese. It usually seems abstract, but we are made for connection, and the reason why we bother sticking together is because that’s where we find our salvation. That’s where we know Jesus. That’s where we feel the Holy Spirit.
I’m so grateful to be with you, Sunday by Sunday. I want you to experience the same reality of connection that I get to experience, because I’m in a different one of our congregations every Sunday. So this is your homework: when you go back to your congregations, talk to them about this convention. That might be easier than talking to them about your faith! Practice talking about the convention, talk about what we did, what you learned, what you’re excited about. Talk about the partnerships that are already happening where you worship every week. Because that’s the new thing that the Holy Spirit is doing in our midst.
As Isaiah says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19).
May it be so. Amen.