Presiding Bishop’s sermon to the Episcopal Church House of Bishops
Posted Mar 11, 2021
The following is the text of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the House of Bishops, which is meeting virtually March 9-12, 2021.
House of Bishops
March 9, 2021
Now, in the name of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It was a year ago that we gathered for our first time virtually, as we were beginning to realize the reality of a global pandemic and beginning to experience what that would mean for us, for the people of our country and the people of all the countries on the face of this earth.
It has been a long year. It’s been a hard year for many. There has been death in the land and sickness and sadness.
And yet we meet now, potentially on the cusp of some hope. The vaccines are coming, and we pray and must labor that they will be distributed equitably to all of God’s children in the same way and manner, that all might be safe and well. In the course of this last year, you the bishops of this church have provided, what the record will show, exemplary leadership: Following in the way of Jesus, providing leadership for the people of God. You have done that. You have done it nobly and well. I account it a high privilege, and a profound honor, to continue to serve with you. Thank you. God bless you.
Now we go to our work, continuing the work of dismantling racism. Of engaging the demons, the powers of principalities, and the realities in our social, corporate, political, and economic world, and in our church and our personal lives. It was in the shadow of the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor in particular, that we made a covenant and a commitment to go even deeper than we had before in the work of bringing the scourge of racism to an end. To dismantling its destructive power, to de-fanging its spiritual realities, to engaging in high places and low, until the love of God, the love of God that we know in Jesus, shows us the way to create God’s beloved community. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
And so now we gather. After this year when Asian Americans have been threatened and endangered in this country.
We gather as the trial of the police officer who murdered George Floyd is beginning. We gather after an interview between the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and Oprah Winfrey has torn apart, torn asunder a scab and exposed the depth of the wounds of racism. We gather, just after the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. And on that Edmund Pettus Bridge many sacrificed – some in that contest sacrificed life – that all might have the right to vote and participate in this democracy. As we observe that very sacrifice, there are forces afoot in our land seeking to disenfranchise what was enfranchised in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I’ve asked Rebecca Blachly of our office of government relations to join us on Friday at Fireside, just to give you a little briefing on it and ways we can help.
And now we gather, in the shadow of an attempted overthrow of the government of the United States. No, an insurrection, an unholy alliance of white supremacy and Christian nationalism seeking to overthrow the possibility that this nation might truly be e pluribus unum, from many diverse peoples, one. That this nation might cease and never become a multiracial democracy, whereas the old slaves used to say, there is plenty good room. Plenty good room for all of God’s children.
So let me give you a text. It is related to the text appointed for this day. I’d like you to note this moment that I’m actually preaching on the lectionary texts, but with a different one.
From the eighth chapter of John, Jesus said,
“If you continue in my words, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31,32)
My gramma loved, loved the song that said,
I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know he watches me
If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples. And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.
Now I sometimes pay close attention when I go to the doctor. And the doctor is about my age, which means he was in medical school about same time I was in seminary and I know how much I’ve forgotten since I was in seminary. I want to make sure he is checking with younger physicians to update himself. But I remember when I was in seminary, back in the mid-1970s, Raymond Brown, now the late Raymond Brown, had just published his commentary on John’s Gospel. And I took an exegesis course on John. One thing I remember, and I don’t know why it sticks, why I remember it so, was that Raymond Brown in commenting on this passage and others like it, on the vocabulary of John’s Gospel says that when Jesus in John’s Gospel speaks of ‘my word,’ or ‘my words,’ that he is actually talking about in John’s Gospel, His teachings. The teachings revealed in the example of his life, his manner of life, his way of love that he actually lived. And his spirit and living reality. The teachings, examples in the spirit of Jesus for John is the key. It is the key to authentically being Christians who participate in God’s mission in the world.
And apart from those teachings, example, that spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, we are subject to our self-serving ends, often disguised in religious and sanctimonious language. Jesus was clear about this at the Last Supper. In John 14, he says, those who love me, will keep my word. There it is. My Father will love them. We will come to them and make our home with them, dwelling with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. My teaching, my example, my way of life. And then he says the advocate, the Paraclete, the spirit will come and will remind you of everything I taught you: the teachings, the example, the spirit, the way of life, the way of love of Jesus. This is the core of who Jesus is and of who we are as those who dare as baptized disciples to follow in his footsteps and his way.
And it is when we are authentic to that and faithful to that, that we are participating in God’s mission in this world. And when we do not do that, when we do not do that, it is not God’s mission, it is our own. That is when Christianity participates in idolatry.
When I was bishop of North Carolina a while back, I went on sabbatical. The diocese was kind enough to give me a sabbatical leave. So for three months, I went away and did what you do on sabbatical. I wanted to do a number of things at that time. One, I wanted to take violin lessons and I did. (Still waiting on the New York Philharmonic, but they haven’t called.) But that was one thing, so I took violin lessons. But the second and third things; I really wanted to study the teachings of Jesus, specifically the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5,6,7. And I wanted to study the Sermon on the Mount in relationship to pro- and anti-arguments, arguments of abolitionist Christians and abolitionist arguments of pro-slavery Christians to just see how they compared.
And I discovered something or stumbled into it, a consistent pattern began to emerge. Those who argued for the maintenance of chattel slavery never did so on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, they avoided Jesus of Nazareth like the plague. They avoided the Jesus who said blessed are the poor, blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the compassionate, blessed are those who hunger and thirst, that God’s righteous justice might prevail.
They ignored and avoided like the plague the Jesus who said do unto others as you would have to do unto you. Oh, they avoided like the plague the Jesus of the parable of the sheep and the goats. They avoided like the plague, the Jesus of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Avoided like the plague the Jesus who said the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he’s anointed me to preach Good News to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty all those who are oppressed. Oh no that Jesus, you will not find in any of the writing of those here or abroad that argue for the maintenance of chattel slavery. That’s not an accident. Bigotry is your game; Jesus is not the name.
There’s a quote from Frederick Douglass, it actually comes from the end of his autobiography, which I actually read at that time and he says and let me just read it to you. He says, this is Frederick Douglass in the 19th century:
“What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive [the] one as, good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ. I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.“
Almost a century later, in another context Mahatma Gandhi said this: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. I believe in the teachings of Christ, but you on the other side of the world do not. I read the Bible faithfully and see little in Christendom that those who profess faith pretend to see.”
When Jesus, his teachings, his example, his manner of life, his way of love, is the center Christianity finds its soul, and when this Jesus of Nazareth is not, we are not participating in the mission of God, but engaging in a mission of our own devising. An invincible evil is possible. If you don’t believe me, remember, remember your history. Remember the Nazi Church of Germany, and the need for Barman confession and a confessing church. Remember apartheid theology of the Dutch Reformed Church. Remember, the Doctrine of Discovery of the Roman Catholic Church. But let me not blame others. Remember the work of the Anglican tradition. Remember the writings, the writings of those for SPG – the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel who implored Parliament and the leadership of England, to find a way to make it possible to baptize slaves without altering their civil condition. And it was in an opinion rendered by the attorney general, and solicitor general of the time. That said and I quote, “baptism is wholly a spiritual state” and quote “does not in any manner change civil rights.” That was a gift of our Anglican tradition to the world. And there’s even more. Yet, I may be misreading the Bible, but I think St. Paul said in Galatians 3 as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, slave or free, male or female, for all of you are one in Christ. You had when, when anything besides Jesus, his teaching, his way of love and his life, comes to the center of the Christian faith, the Christian faith has been abandoned, no matter how holy and sanctimonious it may look, my brothers and sisters.
January 6. The insurrection. We saw the unholy alliance of white supremacy and Christian nationalism attempt to overthrow not simply a democracy. An attempt to overthrow the possibility of a multiracial, truly diverse America where all peoples of all stripes and types could find a home and live with liberty and justice for all.
When I became your presiding bishop, and I’ve been blessed, blessed to be that. (I’m not about to retire, this isn’t a retirement statement – don’t worry about that.) But when I became Presiding Bishop I said it was my hope and prayer to truly be the CEO of the church. To be sure, chief executive officer. Okay, that’s part of it. What I said and what I meant, then and believe now, is that my job is to be the church’s chief evangelism officer: to help the church, to help us all claim the high calling as followers of Jesus of Nazareth. The one whose way can set the captive free. I believed that then and believe it now. At the time, I meant that in terms of bearing witness in our society and in our world, to the life and the way of Jesus. And I meant that in terms of a real evangelism that is not judgmental or narrow minded or about stealing anybody from anybody else’s religion, but a way of evangelism that helps folk find their way to the love of God that we have known in Jesus of Nazareth. But [what] I don’t think I fully grasped at the time, was that part of the great work, maybe its most difficult work of evangelism, would be to re-evangelize Christianity itself from religion in the service of the empire. Religion in service of self. Religion in service of race, religion, in service of class; religion in service of anything other than God and Jesus in his way of love.
That may well be our most important work and may well be the seed of a new reformation, in the very heart of Christianity itself.
I started re-reading Howard Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited and I would encourage [you to read] it. I’ve read it a number of times. Dr. King used to carry it around with him on all of his various trips. Thurman, you may know, was a colleague of the late Bishop John Burgess, when they were both at Howard University together. Thurman was the one who introduced King, one of the people who introduced King to the work and the writings of Mahatma Gandhi. It was Thurman, who, as the [House of Bishop’s] theology committee paper on white supremacy [notes], it was Thurman, who introduced King to the writings of Josiah Royce, who was the one who coined the phrase Beloved Community.
In this book, Thurman, in the introduction at the beginning of the book, he talks as he often did about his grandmother. His grandmother who had been a slave. She wasn’t able to read and write. But when he was a little boy, she would always ask him every evening to read to her from the Bible. But she said she didn’t want to hear Paul, because she remembered that old slave masters would never let the slave preachers preach unless their text was ‘slaves be obedient to them that are your earthly masters, as unto Christ.’
She didn’t want to hear Paul; I want to hear about Moses. I want to hear about Jeremiah. She said I want to hear about Jesus. Read those parts of the Bible. But then she would also say, alright, I’d let you read one thing from Paul, First Corinthians 13:
“Thou I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I’m a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal . . . Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”
Thurman surmised that his old grandmother, a former slave, realized that Paul grasped that at the heart of the message of Jesus is the way of love, that leads to beloved community. Where the old slaves used to sing, there’s plenty good room, plenty good room. Plenty good room for all of God’s children. If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples. And you will know the truth and that truth will set you free.
I sing because I’m happy.
Oh, I sing because I’m free.
His eye is on the sparrow.
And I know he watches me.
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