79th General Convention: July 5 sermon by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry

Posted Jul 6, 2018

And now in the name of our loving, liberating and life-giving God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Well good morning Episcopal Church! We are here! We are here! We are here!

I think it was Secretary Barlowe at one of the introductory sessions a few months ago, orientation sessions a few months ago, who said that the theme of the City of Austin was “Keep Austin Weird,” and he said that he had full confidence that we would be able to accomplish that. It is so good, it is so good to be here.

Full ENS coverage of the 79th meeting of General Convention is available here.

Allow me, if you will, to offer a reflection on the words of Jesus that you just heard from the 15th chapter of John’s gospel, which happened to be at the Last Supper in John’s gospel, at the Last Supper, not long before Jesus would show what love looks like, giving of the self, even sacrificing the self for the good and well-being of others.

At the Last Supper he says, “A new commandment I give you,” not a new option, a new commandment I give you that you love one another. At the Last Supper when he showed them what it looked like by taking a towel and washing the feet of his disciples. At the Last Supper, “as the Father has loved me”, he says, “so have I loved you. Now abide in my love.” When he knew their world would fall apart, when he knew uncertainty and ambiguity was in the air, when he knew that he did not know for sure, or precisely, what lay ahead, and all he could do was trust the Father, and leave it to the Father’s hands through the hands of an empire. And it is then that he said to them what he may be saying to us, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” I don’t know if you heard it, but “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Have you heard it, “I am the vine you are the branches?” Do you hear him whisper, Episcopal branch, of the Jesus Movement? “I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me and I in you, for apart from me,” check this one out, “apart from me you can do nothing. But abide in me and you will bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry begins his sermon at the opening Eucharist of the 79th General Convention in Austin, Texas. Photo: Mike Patterson/Episcopal News Service

Allow me, if you will, to reflect on that, the Jesus Movement text, by using another text. They told me never do that in seminary, but I have been out of seminary almost 40 years. But there is another story in the Bible in the gospel that actually may illuminate what Jesus was getting at here. I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me as I in you. For those who abide in me bear much fruit prove to be my disciples. How’s that Lord? By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, not that you can recite the baptismal covenant, that’s important – and it is important – not that you know the Nicene Creed by heart, or whichever version with the filioque clause, or without, that’s important, but that’s not it, not that you know the Athanasian Creed at the end of the Prayer Book and those historical documents that only historians actually read. No, how will the world know that you are my disciples? He says that you love one another. Love is the way. Love is the only way. Those who follow in my way follow in the way of unconditional, unselfish, sacrificial love and that kind of love can change the world! That, that kind of love.

But the question is how? How do you do it? Young people – on Wednesday I was with the Youth Presence, they’re probably in here somewhere, I don’t know where – where are y’all? Oh, there they are, all right, there they are! We were talking about this on Wednesday, and somebody said “How do you follow Jesus in the way of love in a world that is profoundly unloving?” How do you do it? This message is for you. So let me talk to them, and I want you to be like Sarah in the Bible, and eavesdrop at the tent.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry delivers sermon at the opening Eucharist of the 79th General Convention in Austin, Texas. Photo: Mike Patterson/Episcopal News Service

There’s an old song that may help. It says,

I got my hand on the Gospel plow
Wouldn’t take nothin’ for my journey now
Keep your eyes on the prize
Hold on, hold on
Keep your eyes on the prize
Hold on

Got my hands on the Gospel plow
Wouldn’t take nothin’ for my journey now
Keep your eyes on the prize
Hold on, hold on
Keep your eyes on the prize
Hold on

Now, I have a feeling there are several passages behind that song, but one of them comes out of the 14th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. And in the 14th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has sent his disciples, at least some of them, off on a trip on the sea. And he tells them to get in the boat and he says, Y’all go across to the other side. The y’all was the King James Version of that, but that’s what he – that’s what he . . . Y’all go across to the other side. And as they were on the perilous journey, on the Sea of Galilee, in the middle of the night, if you will, a storm erupts, and they’re fearful for their very lives, ‘cause this is in the middle of the night. And this is night with not having ambient light. This is night without artificial light. All they had, whatever lamps they had in that boat, that was it. It was NIGHT. James Weldon Johnson said, “Blacker than a midnight in a cypress swamp.” Night! And they were fearful because they couldn’t even see the wind and the rain and yet they could feel them buffeting them back and forth, buffeting back and forth!

And then, when it was darkest, when it was most uncertain, Peter looked out, and he could see off in the distance, he saw a figure coming toward them. And he kept looking. And he even stood up in the boat while it was rocking. Imagine the others holding on to him. And the figure kept coming closer. And at first he thought maybe this is a hallucination. And then he could make out the face. And it was Jesus. He was walking on the water. And Peter, without even thinking, says, “Lord, if you bid me come to you I’ll come to you!” And Jesus says, “Well come on, brother,” and Peter jumps out of the boat and starts walking on the water, heading toward Jesus, and he actually did it! He just saw him, he said, “Lord!” He kept walking, “Lord! It’s you!” And then, he looked around, and it was a serious “uh-oh” moment. And the text says – Matthew very skillfully weaves the story – says that when Peter looked at the wind and the waves and saw the storm around him and lost focus off of Jesus and focused on the storm, THAT’S when he began to sink!

Oh, my brothers and sisters, I think there’s something there!

Got my hand on the Gospel plow!
Wouldn’t take nothin’ for the journey now
Just keep your eyes on the prize!
Hold on! Hold on!

Keep your eyes on the prize!
Hold on

Oh, I bet that there’s something here. Now I’m not going to be long, I’m going to bring this to a conclusion . . .

But there is some wisdom here, ‘cause in Matthew’s version, I want you to notice that the storm doesn’t stop. This is not a story about Jesus calming the sea. This is about Jesus, the storm rages on. But if you want to know how to walk through a storm – I like Rodgers and Hammerstein, but that’s probably not the best way to do it – you want to know how to walk through the storm? Keep your eyes on the prize! Keep your eyes focused on this Jesus, on his teachings, on his spirit, abide with him, dwell with him, live in him, when you live in him guess what? He’ll start living in you!

That’s what’s going on!

And the amazing thing about this is yes, Peter walks on the water – that really is amazing, I mean, I’m not surprised that Jesus walks on the water, that’s what he’s supposed to do. I mean, he is the Lord, that’s what I would expect the Lord to do – but I am surprised that Peter does it, and if you look at the dynamics of Peter doing it, it’s when Peter – Dietrich Bonhoeffer – I’m coming to a point, don’t worry, don’t worry – when Peter – Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when he wrote a book called “The Cost of Discipleship”, and he was talking, it’s an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5, 6, and 7, where Jesus says stuff like “Love your enemies,” and Bonhoeffer says, I think what’s going on there, is that you have Jesus giving these teachings about how to live a life of love. But if you approach them as mechanical, legalistic things, you’ll stumble.

Bonhoeffer says the key is not to turn the teachings of Jesus into a new law. The key is to throw yourself into the arms of God. Throw yourself into the hands of Jesus. And then, you might actually learn to love an enemy. Then you might pray for those who curse you. Then you know what it means to be blessed. The poor. The poor in spirit. The compassionate. Makes them hunger for God’s justice.

To throw yourself into the arms of Jesus.

Got my hand on the Gospel plow!
Wouldn’t take nothin’ for the journey now
Just keep your eyes on the prize!
Hold on! Hold on!

Keep your eyes on that prize!
Hold on

Now, I’m gonna ask you to do something. I’m an Episcopalian all my life, so I know how Episcopalians say no, they just get quiet.

Several months ago, I invited a group of Episcopalians, clergy, laity, bishops, just a kind of a group of folk, and I asked them to come and meet, if they would just come and spend just a little bit of time to help me think and pray through how do we help our church to go deeper as the Jesus Movement, not just in word, but not just in deed, either, but for real. How do we help our folk to throw themselves into the arms of Jesus? How do you help me to do that? ‘Cause I know when we do it, and abide in him, we will bear fruit we never imagined. But I have to admit, Michael Curry didn’t have the answer. Still don’t. Yet, you’re saying, what are you going to say for the rest of the sermon?

And so we sat down, we met in the Atlanta airport, cause that was kinda easy, an easy place to be. We met in the Atlanta airport and we just kinda locked up, said Holy Eucharist, said our prayers, and just locked each other – we didn’t do any wining and dining in Atlanta. We didn’t go to underground Atlanta. We didn’t get any Paschal’s fried chicken, though I wish we had but nonetheless, we didn’t, and we locked up in Atlanta, we just stayed there and just kept engaging, and they kept pushing me and we kept going back and forth, back and forth, and finally we realized something, we didn’t need to come up with a new program for the church. We got programs and there’s nothing wrong, but we don’t need a new program. We don’t need a new program. No. No. We realized that – wait a minute, we don’t have to do anything new!

Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel, “The scribe who is fit for the Kingdom goes into their treasure box and pulls out something old that becomes something new.” And we realized that we already have what we need in the tradition of the church going back centuries. For centuries monastic communities and religious communities and people of faith who have gone deeper in this faith have lived by what they often call a rule of life; a set of spiritual practices that they make a commitment to live in, practices that help them open up the soul, open up the spirit, helped them find their way, a way of throwing yourself into the arms of God. They’ve been doing this for long, you don’t believe me ask St. Benedict. They’ve been doing this a long time and we realized, what would happen, what would happen, if we asked every Episcopalian to adopt what we’re calling a way of love, practices for a Jesus-centered life. What would happen? And we got folk together, some of the monastic communities helped us out, some of the theological scholars helped us out. People who do formation in the church people who know how to do…we have what we need. It’s sitting in this room. It’s in the church. We brought them together and asked, help us. And this is what they came up with. It’s not a program. But did you all get these? Take ‘em out, take ‘em out. This is the old parish priest coming in me. I always gave my congregation some homework and had a handout. Got a handout? Everybody got it? If you found it, say, Amen!

If you can’t, say, Help me Lord. And look on that first one that says, What do we seek? We seek love. Because we all just want to be loved. We were made by the God, whom the Bible says is love. We were made to be loved and to love. We seek freedom. Every child of God was meant to breathe free. We seek abundant life, not bargain basement life, but the real thing. Maybe all that’s summed up by saying we seek Jesus. We seek Jesus. They came up with some words, and there’s all sorts of stuff online for you and should be up, I hope it is up by now, it’s already up, yep they’re nodding, it’s already up, the sources are there. This is coming from people in this church. The treasure was ready here.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry delivers sermon to an auditorium of deputies, bishops and guests at the opening Eucharist of the 79th General Convention in Austin, Texas. Photo: Mike Patterson/Episcopal News Service

It starts, Turn. That’s turn, repentance, that was a nice code word for repentance. We figured we’d scare everybody off if we started off by calling it repentance. But that’s turn. Repentance is not about beating up on yourself, it’s about turning from old ways that don’t work, old habits that don’t, turning and turning, like a flower turning in the direction of the sun. Turn! And then learn. Oh, the Bible’s a good book. I don’t know if it’s the number one best seller on the New York Times list, but it ought to be the number one best seller in the Episcopal Church. I remind all my Baptist friends, we gave you all the King James Version of the Bible. Turn! Learn! Pray! Worship! Bless! O we have been blessed to be to be a blessing. How can you bless this world, how can you bless others? Bless! And then go! Go! Go and make disciples! Go and proclaim good news! Go and be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judaea, in Samaria, in first century Galilee and in twenty-first century Austin! Go! And then rest. Sabbath rest is there in Genesis for a reason. Rest! I want to ask you to think about a commitment. I want to ask not only you, but every Episcopalian to make a commitment to throw yourself into the hands of Jesus. And then live life out of that. And these tools may help you. Now somebody’s wondering, will it work? We’re not far from California, and they field test everything in Silicon Valley. Let the Bishop of El Camino Real, the Bishop of California, see they know what I’m talking about, everything’s got to be tested. And I am glad you asked that question, because I was anticipating it. ‘Cause the truth is, it works. It’s already been field tested. You don’t believe me, read the Psalms of David. In the Psalms of David, the psalmist says, “in the morning, at noonday and at night, I offer my prayers to you.” That is a rule of life. That is a structure of times and places and a way to pray. You don’t believe, you don’t believe the Psalms of David, come to the New Testament. St. Paul, and I know folk have some issues with Paul, but don’t worry about that, my grandma used to say, “St. Paul was like any preacher. He has some good sermons and some not so good sermons. The problem is, they put them all in the Bible.” Oh that’s the problem. Yeah. But let me tell you something, Paul was having a good day in First Corinthians, chapter 9, when he says, he trains himself like an athlete. He trains his spirit like an athlete, like a great musician. He trains himself by practicing. Somebody asked me, how do you live a sacrificial, loving life? Well I guess it’s the same way a first responder does, a firefighter. They’ve practiced. They’ve practiced how to save a life. And when the moment comes, it’s instinct. The spiritual practices are how we practice for when the moment comes, and the Spirit moves through us.

If you still don’t believe me, with this I really am going to sit down, I hope I haven’t thrown the schedule off, the Secretary, he’s way back there, he can’t talk. He can’t stop me. In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama, my mama’s people hail from North Carolina. My daddy’s people hail from Alabama. Around, not far from Birmingham in 1963 Birmingham then was not the Birmingham we know, and are thankful to see, today. It’s a different city. In 1963 the sheriff of Birmingham was a man named Bull Connor. I believe he might have been an Episcopalian, but I’m not going to investigate too much. Bull Connor, well, Birmingham was as segregated as segregated could be. Birmingham was seen as one of the most intractable places in the entire south. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference determined that they needed to make a stand in Birmingham in order to transform the south, and eventually the whole country.

And so Dr. King and others went to Birmingham and they went to Alabama. The Alabama we know today is not what Alabama was then. Alabama, Birmingham, 16th Street Baptist Church, my aunt Callie taught Sunday school in that church in 1963. In 1963 four little girls who would have grown up to be my age, were killed in Sunday school when a bomb planted by a Klansman went off in a church. Birmingham in 1963 when young people marched, hoses were, water was sprayed on them from fire hoses and German Shepherd dogs attacked them at the hands of the police. Birmingham, Selma, Edmund Pettus Bridge. Our own Jonathan Daniels gave his life in Alabama. The Alabama today is not what it was yesterday because somebody was willing to love unconditionally, unselfishly, sacrificially. And they were black and white. They were Protestant, Catholic, Jew and Muslim. They were people of God and good will.

As part of their training for non-violent protest, Dr. King composed a set of practices, a kind of rule of life. And here’s part of what it said, “Remember, the non-violent movement seeks justice and reconciliation, not just victory. Remember, always walk and talk in a manner of love, for God is love. Remember, pray daily to be used by God. Remember, sacrifice personal wishes so that all might be free. Remember, observe with friend and foe alike, the ordinary, normal rules of courtesy. Remember, perform services for others and for the world. Remember, refrain from violence of the fist and violence of the spirit. Remember, strive to be in bodily good and spiritual health.” But the first thing on the list that he repeated over and over again, was this, “Before you march, before you protest, before you do anything, meditate on the life and the teachings of Jesus.” My brothers and sisters, I am asking us as the Episcopal Church, no, asking us as individual Episcopalians, asking us as the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement before you begin your day, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus. I am asking you to make that commitment. And nobody’s going to know but you and God, but I am asking you to make the commitment. Before you march, and while we’re here at Convention before you get up to speak at that microphone, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus. You with me now. Right, right. With me now. Before you go over to the water cooler and start whispering something into somebody’s ear, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus! When we leave this Convention meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus. When we come in here to worship, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus. When we go out to the Hutto Detention Center, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus. When we join with Bishops United Against Gun Violence, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus. Episcopal Church, join me, join me and meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus. Throw ourselves into him, and let Jesus take over.

I love this church. I was born and raised in it. Baptized on the eighth day – oh, I don’t know what day it was, but anyway, baptized as an infant according to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Lord have mercy! My swaddlin’ clothes were that Episcopal flag. I love this church, and I love it because I learned about Jesus in and through this church. And I know, and I believe that we in this church can help Christianity to reclaim its soul and re-center its life in the way of love, the way of the cross, which is the way of Jesus.

So God love you. God bless you. And just throw yourself in the arms of Jesus and let those almighty hands and arms of love lift you.

Got my hand on the gospel plow.
Wouldn’t take nothin’ for my journey now.
Just keep your eyes on the prize.
Hold on. Hold on.
Keep your eyes on the prize.
Hold on.


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Comments (4)

  1. Kay Hamilton says:

    I have experienced this. Out of desperation for my inability to release myself from anger and frustration, I asked the Holy Spirit to do what I couldn’t do and change my heart. I told Him that I wanted to be different but couldn’t make it happen no matter how I begged. I needed to admit that only He could do it and that I was powerless without that submission to receive relief from the darkness of anger. I wanted to love those close to me who were disgusting to me. I asked to realize His work in order to know He had done it so that I could be certain that He did it. I rested in willingness and He moved in my heart and released me, not only from anger but from things I had been wanting to change in my heart for a long time. It was gradual and it was sure but surprisingly quick. I don’t have the ability to Express this deep spiritual experience to my satisfaction. I have found my renewal in the Episcopal church at age 69+ . I love the liturgy every Sunday. I love the prayers. I love the Holy Eucharist each Sunday. I am closer to God than I have been since I received Jesus as a 7 year old in the Baptist church. This worship “pings” for me. I don’t plan very much but I meet each moment and person with God’s love more than ever before. I am a work in progress. Pray for me that now that I have given this testimony I will be protected. I remain in His care. May the love and peace of Jesus be with you all.

  2. Rev. Dr. James Hargis says:

    Excellent and inspirational. We do have what we need, and that is Jesus. We’ve always had Jesus! Challenge is: how do we share Him?!

  3. Stewart David Wigdor says:

    thank you Most Reverend Primate Bishop.

  4. Susan Kuhn says:

    I cannot tell you how happy reading your words makes me. I am in the right place. I had started this practice (July 1) and it is like a spade, turning over the rich soil in me below the packed-down parched topsoil. This is the necessary foundation to cure for what ails us individually and as a society. Thank you!!

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