This is the sermon that Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry preached at the House of Bishops Opening Eucharist, on September 17, 2019.
Welcome to all bishops and spouses, who are here gathered today and thank you to the Diocese of Minnesota for hosting us.
Allow me to interpret one text, actually two, which is not going to be as long as you think. To interpret the epistle and the gospel from the lens of the third text from the Hebrew scripture, from the Epistle from Colossians (3:14, 17)
Above all, “Above all, clothe yourselves in love. And in everything you do, in word and in deed, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Above all, clothe yourselves in love, and in everything you do, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus.
And the gospel from John, chapter three.
God so loved the world, he gave His only begotten Son to the end that all that believed in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. God so loved the world that He gave Jesus.
Now, those are the two texts.
I want y’all to mark this moment because I’m preaching from the lectionary. But I have to interpret it. Isaiah, Chapter 51.
Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness. You who seek the Lord. Look to the rock from whence you were hewn, and to the quarry from whence you were dug. Look to Abraham, your father and to Sarah, who bore you. And, how bad to ‘ol Hager, who made it right. Look to the rock. That’s what we just sang, this song. And now we’re on the same plain.
I had a revelation on the plane. Actually, I didn’t. But he did.
The old song says it right.
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame.
But only lean on Jesus’ name
On Christ, the solid rock I stand.
All other ground is sinking sand.
That is a message for the church in all ages. But maybe particularly for us in this time. Look to the rock.
Now I’m not going to belabor Isaiah 51 because you all went to seminary. And your spouses probably heard you talk about it.
You know that Isaiah 51 comes from the period of the exile and the period after the exile. I’m not sure whether this is Isaiah 2 or Isaiah 3. But it doesn’t matter, it’s in the book. It clearly comes from that time when people who had once known freedom lost it. When the world had been one way one day and became another way the next. When everything that they could count on, everything they could count on in this world, crumbled before their very eyes.
In 586 B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar and the armies of Babylon conquered most of the ancient Near East. That included Palestine. They razed the countryside of Palestine, approached the city of Jerusalem, breached the walls of Jerusalem, entered the holy city itself. And then the one institutional reality that they could count on, the temple built by Solomon, Solomon, from the days when the Queen of Sheba came all the way from Ethiopia blew his mind. Now that’s a soap opera . . .
The Queen of Sheba and Solomon, that temple, the glorious temple that David had wanted to build but couldn’t build, but Solomon built it, the temple, it stood for the nation, it stood for their faith, it stood for everything they had counted on. And now the temple was destroyed and desecrated.
To add insult to injury, took the leading citizens of Jerusalem, that’s why it doesn’t pay to be a leading citizen, took the leading citizens and carted them off to Babylon, a long, long way from home. They sang in their captivity, “Oh by the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remember thee, O Zion.
As for our harps, we hung them on a lyre as our captors required of us a song, saying sing us one of the songs of Zion. But how?
How should we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? In exile. In exile.
As James Weldon Johnson said in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” these were days when hope unborn had died.
And yet, it is precisely in this context that Isaiah speaks, listen to me, you who long for righteousness. Listen to me, you who long for integrity. Listen to me you who long for justice for the right ordering of God’s world according to God’s dream. And God said listen to me, you who pursue righteousness. Look to the rock which you were hewn – Look to Abraham! Look to Sarah! Look to Hagar! Look to those who have come before you! But look to the rock that they stood on.
And, you’ll figure out how to survive and how to thrive. Even when new parochial reports come out. Look to the rock. Don’t go crazy, I don’t know why everybody goes crazy every year, yeah the numbers are going down. So what? Look to the rock! We’re all followers of Jesus! But I’m getting ahead of myself . . . Now, I want you to notice Isaiah’s wisdom. (And I promise I’ll finish before the spouses have to leave. My wife told me to finish before the spouses have to leave.)
Isaiah gives them some incredible wisdom. He’s not pining for the good old days. This is not a suggestion we go back, to go back to the 1950s when all the churches were full.
No, no, no, this is not pining for the good old days. Go back to the days when America was great so we can make America great again.
Help me, somebody? I’m not being political, this is biblical.
Isaiah is not pining for the good old days of yesteryear, whatever they happen to be; the golden age of the church or the golden age of America. He’s not pining for the past. He’s summoning up Providence, summoning up principles and values, that are rooted in God, and therefore as immutable.
Oh, this isn’t about pining for the past, this is about standing on solid ground that cannot be shaken. Look to the rock. See the truth is, if you put all your apples in this basket called life and existence. They’re going to spoil.
You see, life – I don’t know why it’s the way it is all I know it is. You can’t count on very many things in life to stay the same. Take old Heraclitus from ancient Greece. The only thing that doesn’t change is the fact that everything changes. Everything changes. Isaiah, in Chapter 40 says “the grass withers the flower fades, but the word of our God endures forever.” If you bet on the change-able-ness of life and existence – if you still don’t believe me, and I’m not going to do the whole thing – but Frank Sinatra says you can be “riding high in April and shot down in May.” That’s life. Right? That’s life. You don’t believe Frank Sinatra, ask Jesus!
Palm Sunday morning was good. It was all right when he was riding on that donkey. Everything was good; even the disciples were having a good time, everybody was having a good time, ‘til the afternoon when he went to temple but that was a whole ‘nother issue. Palm Sunday morning was good. And we call Good Friday, Good Friday. I don’t think Jesus used that phrase. Everything was wonderful. It was Hosanna on Sunday and crucified on Friday. That’s life.
Oh, for those of you who are new to this wonderful Episcopal ministry [House of Bishops]. I love it. I wouldn’t change. I wouldn’t give it up and I love it. I’m thankful, I am thankful to be a bishop in this church. I am. I love what I do, but I don’t love everything I have to do. And, the truth is I’ve been in this long enough now. I’m not as old as some of y’all. I’ve been at this long enough to know that there’s some good days, and there’s some other days.
I’ve heard hosannas, and I’ve heard crucify.
Oh after that consecration, ordination – is Neil Alexander here? After the ordination, when I was ordained as a new bishop – I see Jeff Lee over there, too – I hope I got that right. Oh, it was wonderful. I say wow, I’m getting the party and I ain’t done nothing. Everything is wonderful. Everybody was so happy to see me and greet me and those first two years were just wonderful and beautiful. This was 2000 and then 2003 came and I thought it was the right thing. I still think – I gave consent for Bishop Robinson to be consecrated and I announced it to the diocese, and I figured if I told them just you know, just told them the truth, everybody would be okay. Wrong.
All of a sudden my Palm Sunday turned to Good Friday very quick. Oh Yeah. Oh yeah. Scott Benhase was in the diocese back then – all hell broke loose. And Michael Curry’s name was mud.
But that’s all right. That’s life. That’s the nature of existence. One day one thing, another day is another, but if you follow Jesus, Palm Sunday is real and Good Friday is real, but as the old preacher used to say, “Easter is always coming.” Rebuild this church. Rebuild this country.
Rebuild this world on that which is solid, rock solid on Christ. Jesus understood this.
You remember that conversation Jesus had with Peter at Caesarea Philippi? Y’all remember that? Please tell me you remember that. They were at Caesarea Philippi, which is kind of a rocky area of Israel, if you go to Israel, it really is. Anyway, it says, Jesus said, “Yo, (he did say yo). Yo, my brothers, tell me, who do people say that I am?” Peter says, “Some say you are Elijah, come back from the dead, because Elijah was supposed to come, you’re Jeremiah, one of the Great Prophets. And everybody was chiming in this and that, this and that.
And Jesus said, “Now, who do you say that I am? Who do you say that I am. Peter? Michael? John? Bill? Dave? Jeff? Who do you say that I am? Episcopal Church? Anglican Communion? As Peter said you are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God . . . And he said now that the Messiah was suffering. Because Love is not selfish.
God so loved the world not that he took; that he gave his only begotten Son to suffer and be tried and be convicted unjustly and eventually executed. Peter said No, no, no, no. You can’t. No.
This is a Michael midrash for a moment.
Between the lines Jesus was saying, no brother, this is the way of love it is unselfish. It is sacrificial. It is a sacrificial way of love that seeks not one’s own self-interest, but the good in the well-being and the welfare of others. That is a way of love that can save you and save this world.
He said this is the rock: Me! And this way of love. Y’all thought this Jesus movement and this way of love just like we are talking about, we are talking about the elements of revival for the church. And I believe for the rest of the world that Jesus and his way of love. That’s the rock. That’s the rock on which we can stand and the principle of going back to whatever the rock is, is critical, I believe. And I don’t know what times like and stuff wrong with it. Okay.
I believe that this principle of going back to the rock is a principle on which this country; let me speak about this country for a moment, the United States.
My brothers, my sisters, my siblings, something’s wrong. Something’s wrong. I believe the words of Langston Hughes, I too sing America.
I love this country, this is my home, I ain’t going nowhere. And whatever country you are from, love your country. Love your folks. I’m mindful of the words, I believe it was Thomas Moore, “I may remain the king’s loyal servant, but God’s first.”
I love this country, but something’s wrong. Something’s wrong.
When folk are out just partying in Dayton, Ohio, and they get gunned down. Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong.
You got to read this paper that Tom Breidenthal and the Theology Committee did on white supremacy. We didn’t use this the nice word racism. On the rise of white supremacy. In the 21st century.
Something’s wrong when folk are gunned down in El Paso because of the color of their skin and the origin of their home.
Something’s wrong with when Jews in Pittsburgh can’t worship the Lord.
Something’s wrong when Sikhs can’t worship in Wisconsin in safety.
Something’s wrong, in the AME Church in Charleston.
Something’s wrong in our cities where drive-bys continue to happen. And innocent children in Chicago are gunned down. And that’s been going on for years throughout the cities of this country.
The epidemic of gun violence. Something’s wrong.
And something’s wrong when we are not receiving moral leadership. I’m not being partisan now. I don’t care who’s in the White House, Republican, Democrat, Independent. So we need our leaders to call us to the better angels of our nature. To call us to the values on which this country was founded.
Let me tell you something – I’m going to stop in a few –
I know full well, that the founders were hypocrites. Because I’m one, too! So are you! Human beings tend to be hypocritical. That’s why we need Jesus. I know full well that Thomas Jefferson was – his words were one thing, but his life was another. You don’t believe me, ask Mrs. Sally Hemmings or her family.
So, I know that, but the truth is even though he was a hypocrite, he was right. His words were right. They are rock, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
All folk, all children of God are created equal and endowed not by the vote of a congress, not by a parliament, not by any pope, or president. Endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That’s rock. That’s what America looks like.
Oh, Abe Lincoln, how do you say, four-score and seven years ago, our forefathers came upon these continents, this continent, a new nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all folk are created equal. That’s America.
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,
and to the Republic for which it stands,
one Nation under God, indivisible, indivisible.
Not red states and blue states! Indivisible!
Not Republican, Independent, Democrat! Indivisible!
Not liberal! Indivisible!
One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice
Not just for some, not just for Americans, not just for people you like, not just for me, not just… Liberty and justice for all. That’s America.
And we must catalyze a revival, a revival in this nation, a revival in our church, a revival to the principles, and to the God who’s the author of them.
Three things are going to happen next year. You can pretty much count on it:
Parochial statistics are going to be about the same.
There’s going to be a presidential election. And the country’s going to be divided, no matter what happens.
And we are going to Lambeth. But some of us can’t. And some of us won’t. And we will each have to make a decision of conscience. And that decision of conscience must be respected. Those of us who go must be witnesses, to our conscience as God is inspiring it, regardless of where you stand. And somehow we must respect others’ decisions and conscience.
Now, I’m going to go . . . I’m already all ready. I’m going as witness. I’m going as a witness to the way of love that Jesus has taught me, that I have to love. I believe what I believe because I believe it reflects the way as a way of love.
I also believe in the way of love as a way that helps me to understand that some of my brothers and sisters have a different perspective. And love, these, they are my brothers, my sisters.
Better yet. In Christ there is no east and west. But one great fellowship of love.
In 1963, and with this I will sit down. On September 15 it was the feast of the Holy Cross. And a bomb exploded, Sunday morning, 16th Street Baptist Church. Twenty-two people were wounded and injured.
Like in El Paso. Like in America today.
Twenty-two people wounded, and four little girls. Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair were killed.
The bomb killed them. But hatred fired and exploded the bomb. There is hate in our land today.
Now there’s hate in our world today.
Nativisms have supplanted nationalisms, fascism is on the rise again. The demonic evils that we thought were defeated in the Second World War. The demons have been raised again.
We’re in trouble. We’re in trouble.
But I got a God. And I will not stake my life on this world. And I will not stake the hope of this world on this world. Because like the old folks used to say, there’s a God who sits on high and looks down low, those old slaves say trouble gonna last always.
My brothers, my sisters, my siblings. When we go to Lambeth, no, when we leave this place and begin the rest of this year, and live next year. Look to the rock.
In 1963, Dr. King knew how bad Birmingham would be. It’s a different Birmingham today. I got people, family in Birmingham, my folk are from Birmingham. The other side is from North Carolina.
The Birmingham today isn’t what it was in 1963. It had a nickname, “Bombingham,” before the bombing. That’s how bad it was.
Bull Connor was real. I won’t tell you what church he was a member of. But he was real. And King knew that they were entering hard and dangerous times. And so to prepare the marchers, he gave them a little thing I refer to over time. And after this Eucharist you will get a copy of that. And I hope you keep it in your pocket. To read morning prayer. Or whatever your devotion is. To read what Dr. King said as they were entering into the fray.
Remember, the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation – not victory. When we go to Lambeth, remember, walk and talk in the manner of love; for God is love. When you vote, pray daily to be used by God that all men and women might be free. Sacrifice personal wishes that all may truly be free. Observe with friend and foes alike the ordinary rules of human courtesy. Perform regular services for others and for the world. Refrain from the violence of fist, of tongue, of social media, and heart. Strive to be in good bodily and spiritual health.”
The pledge began with these words:
“As you prepare to march meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus.”
Above all hold yourselves in love. Colossians is right.
And whatever you do, whatever we do, in word or in deed, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus.
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly on Jesus’ name.
On Christ the solid rock I stand.
All other ground is sinking sand.
God love ya, God bless ya, and may God hold us all, all of us, and this creation, in those almighty hands of love.