A sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Courtland M. Moore at the Church of the Transfiguration, Dallas, Texas, on the 4th Sunday in Advent, 2013, being the 60th Anniversary of his ordination to the Priesthood.
First, a word of thanks to Fr. Fred Barber and the wardens of the Church of the Transfiguration for allowing me to celebrate the eucharist and preach on this day, which is the anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood 60 years ago this morning.
Also a word of thanks to those of you who have come from this and other congregations to be with me this night. Friendship is a wonderful thing, and I treasure you more than you will ever know. And a special word of deepest appreciation to Barbara, who has been a strong pillar of support through fifty-four years of marriage, and to all my family, for putting up with me for all these many years.
And now a word about these vestments. I know they are not the right color. Until 5:30 this evening, today was the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, whose color is red. And these are the vestments in which I was ordained in 1953, on the feast of St. Thomas. Let me share a bit of trivia about these vestments. They are of fine English linen, cut to my specific measurement, and they cost twenty-five dollars. That’s right: $25.00. Today, if you could find something of similar quality, it would cost maybe six hundred, probably more. And that’s where the sermon begins.
The world is far different today than it was in 1953. And so is The Episcopal Church. In 1953 the thing that divided us was churchmanship: Were you high church or low church? Did you worship at Morning Prayer or at Holy Communion? Did you make the Sign of the Cross and bow the knee in reverence or were those outward signs indications of a romance with things too Romish?
In 1953 it was often said that The Episcopal Church was the Republican Party at prayer, and we were called “God’s Frozen People.” A lot of folks had misconceptions about us. A common joke was that when three or four Episcopalians were gathered together, there you would usually find a fifth. I well remember a Sunday School teacher in the church I attended in high school telling us not even to look in the doors of an Episcopal church “because they drink, they smoke, they dance, they read their prayers out of a book, and they worship idols”. What was true, and still is, is that The Episcopal Church attracted and still attracts people of intelligence, because even sixty years ago we didn’t ask people to check their brains at the door.
The thing that attracted me to The Episcopal Church, however, was its liturgy. I had never before seen people pray. How we pray is the core of who we are. How we pray is how we put into practice what we profess to believe. We do indeed pray from one book, and that is the beauty of our worship. We know what we as a church are to say to God and what he has to say to us, and it’s part and parcel of the Book of Common Prayer and not being made up on the spot by the worship leader. Liturgy is the practice of our beliefs, what we do together as a family of believers.
So our liturgy is based on what we believe. It is rightly said that The Episcopal Church has no faith of its own. What we have and what we commit to are the holy scriptures and the ancient creeds. We need no additional defining statements of faith. The faith of the universal Church is sufficient and all-encompassing, although any part of it is, of course, subject to individual interpretation. No one can tell us how we must interpret any passage of the creed or any word of holy scripture. It is out of the corporate faith of the church that liturgy as the practice of our faith is developed.
But neither the faith of the church nor its practice is complete without Christian action. In 1953 the church barely understood that, or at best acted as if we didn’t. The great evangelist, Billy Sunday, is known to have said of us: “The Episcopal Church is a sleeping giant. If it ever wakes up, watch out.”
The waking up of The Episcopal Church began in 1967. At the General Convention of that year the new presiding bishop, John Hines, challenged the church to face up to the evils of segregation. I had clergy friends in both Oklahoma and Texas who swore that no one of color would ever be allowed to worship in their church. Now Bishop Hines was no dewy-eyed liberal, but he was a man who understood the scriptural injunctions about hospitality and care for all of humanity. At a special called convention in South Bend two years later the lid blew off and the church was forced to fully confront the evils of racial segregation. A new direction was set, and issues of high church/low church just didn’t matter so much any more. After some 1900 hundred years of quietly ignoring Matthew 25:31- 46, the church began to heed the teachings of Jesus, particularly the parable of the sheep and the goats. In case you don’t remember that text, it is that passage in Matthew where Jesus talks about those who will be in the kingdom of heaven and those who won’t, and it has to do with how we treat one another. And if you don’t remember the late sixties, the stand that The Episcopal Church began to take in regard to the whole issue of human dignity resulted in a steady stream of people leaving the church. Suddenly what had been seen as the church of the rich and successful was now becoming the church of human rights and mutual respect. Those who failed to understand that this was the direct result of the church getting serious about Jesus and his teachings saw instead a church opting for the liberal agenda, whatever that might be. Secular America, thinking apart from the Gospel mandate, could only see political issues and failed to recognize the spiritual ones.
The exodus was scarcely ended, however, once we had made a strong stand on race. As late as the 1960’s, women couldn’t even serve on vestries, let alone be delegates to diocesan or deputies to General Conventions. I remember well the General Convention of 1970 when the very first woman ever was seated as a deputy to General Convention; the following convention of 1973, when gays and lesbians had for the first time a small display booth to express to the church that they, too, were children of God; the conventions of 1976 and 1979, when ordination was opened for the first time to women and the church accepted and ratified a new and more comprehensive Book of Common Prayer; and the convention of 2003, when the convention ratified the election of Gene Robinson to be the bishop of New Hampshire. And people left at every turn, at every new awareness of the meaning of Jesus’ words. At the following convention in 2006 the House of Bishops elected —gasp—a woman to be presiding bishop, an act which caused my then bishop, Jack Iker, to leave The Episcopal Church. Today the two highest offices in the Episcopal Church are occupied by women: Katharine Jefferts Schori as presiding bishop and the Reverend Gay Jennings as president of the House of Deputies.
I believe that Billy Sunday was correct. The Episcopal Church has been rising from sleep for most of my sixty years as a priest, and I believe that this is the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. We have grown smaller but I am convinced that we have become stronger. The more we understand and put into action the teachings of the incarnate son of God, the more nearly this church is responding to the will of him who is our Savior.
Our very being is grounded first in what we believe, the faith of our fathers as outlined in the Bible and the historic creeds. But that is not enough. If we do not practice our faith, it is meaningless. We build our Christian practice on our corporate life of prayer through the use of a common liturgy. It took us a while, but we have come more and more to realize that both faith and practice must be exemplified by action as shown forth by Jesus’ teachings about the dignity of all humankind. Indeed, Jesus reminds us, “. . . as we have done it to the least of God’s children, so we have done it to him”. We have, as a church, decided that Jesus is correct about human dignity. There is a saying that goes like this:
“All are welcome—no exceptions.”
That is who we are becoming, that is who we are. To be anything less is to deny our Lord himself.
I love this Episcopal Church, and I love watching her respond more and more to her faith, her practice, and her Christian action. I am grateful for sixty years of priesthood and even more grateful for more years than that of calling myself an Episcopalian. It has been an exciting journey. To paraphrase the collect for this Fourth Sunday of Advent, we pray that our Lord Jesus, working as he does through this church we love, will when he comes again find in us a mansion prepared for himself. We are the people of God and, indeed, we are the mansion of the Lord. May he ever dwell with us and with The Episcopal Church as we continue to strive to do his will. As to those who have left the church or who will yet leave it because of our faith, our practice, or our action: well, I guess they just don’t get it.