Preached by the Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley
“God is what we have not yet understood, the sign of a strange and unpredictable future.”
– Rowan Williams
We begin in the ancient world. Go not to Jerusalem, but Athens. The 5th century BCE was the Golden Age of the Athenian democracy. The Athens city-state created a unique version of governance by the citizenry. Its high point was reached during the leadership of Pericles from 449-431, during which the great buildings on the Acropolis were constructed.
Major decisions belonged to the ekklesía, the assembly of citizens. Living in New Hampshire, I think our town meeting form of government is not dissimilar, though it seldom meets more than once a year, and unlike the Athens of two and a half millennia ago, the vote is open to women and non-owners of property. The Athenian democracy gave us another gift, the word liturgy, in Greekleitourgía, from leitourgos, public servant (a variant of laos, people) + ergon, work. Liturgy was, as Thomas Merton reminds us in his book Seasons of Celebration1, a public ceremony or work, the “contribution made by a free citizen of the polis (the city-state) to the celebration and manifestation of the visible life of the polis.” It was distinct from the more private concerns of making a living or managing the affairs of the oikumene, the “household.”
Political life was not separate from public religious ceremonies, the frenzied dithyrambic dance and procession or the representation of religious and ethical drama in the great plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Euripides. “Liturgical celebration in this ancient and original sense is a sacred and public action in which the community, at once religious and political, acknowledges its identity in worship.”2 You might almost say that in the pageantry shared by literally millions of American citizens during the recent presidential inaugural, this country came close to a wedding of public ceremony and drama and an affirmation of the life and values of ours, the American democracy.Having visited the Parthenon last October when we were in Athens, I was moved by the equal grandeur of the Lincoln Memorial towering over the crowd on that Sunday before the swearing in of Mr. Obama..
When you and I attend the eucharistic liturgy in this chapel, occasionally or with great frequency, we stand in a tradition from the earliest days of the Church that similarly makes no separation or distinction between what is corporate and communal in the liturgy, and what is personal and individual. That is particularly so when we gather for this annual celebration of our common identity with St. John, the Beloved Disciple, and the brothers of this Society. The brochure which describes the Fellowship of St. John affirms that we are partners with the brothers in the gospel life, members of an extended family, truly a company of friends.In short, we are here as members of the Body of Christ, the incarnation of God’s love. We may come on retreat to be formed as individuals in the life of prayer and discipleship, but whenever we celebrate the liturgy we stand together to be shaped into the Body of Christ. In words drawn from a sermon of St. Augustine:3 “Behold who you are. May we become what we receive.”
We are the ekklesía, people who are called – called as individuals, yes, but called together into the city of God. A mark of the liturgical renewal in the churches during the 20th century has been the recovery of the practice of standing as the normative posture during the liturgy, one never surrendered by the Orthodox churches, where a typical church building has minimal seating and that limited to the aged and the infirm. Perhaps you were offered the same rubric for posture in the Episcopal Church given to me in preparation for my confirmation nearly seventy years ago: We kneel to pray; we stand to praise; we sit to be instructed. Not a bad formula. Except that in those days, Holy Communion was generally perceived to be a very private relationship with God, and the central act of praise, the Holy Thanksgiving for the Cross and Passion of Jesus the Christ, was typically recited by a priest with his back to people who were on their knees, neither standing nor proclaiming aloud the mystery of faith. We are the ekklesia, the community of those who by baptism are called to stand around the celebrant who lifts up for the community its identity as the Body of Christ.
The mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
In a moment, when we recite those words, we place ourselves in the very situation faced by the disciples on Easter Day – a confused, fragmented, fearful, and despondent handful of people taken back to the Upper Room to be fed as he had promised, empowered with new spirit, and sent out. Those early followers, women and men, literally ate their way into community with the risen Jesus. The did so in the room where they huddled. They did so at supper after the walk to Emmaus. They did so on the seashore where some of them went fishing. And their successors made this the central act of their liturgy. Not orthodoxy – concern for right belief – but orthopraxis – normative practice, normative behavior and worship.
Why is this astonishing affirmation the center point of the Church’s liturgy? What binds Christian believers in every age together is that our souls and bodies are fed and shaped for communion not solely with God, but with each other and with the whole creation. And that is just the starting point. The Paschal mystery is indeed the clue to God’s answer to our questions and the unsettlement we share with those first believers — the question about who and what God shall be to us. But at a deeply human level it also casts a new perspective on all the unanswered questions about who and what we are meant to be as we live through troubling times.
I wonder if you have caught up with a growing body of experience which wears the name the emerging church? Whether you have or not, I want to offer you two books. One is by Phyllis Tickle, the eminent Episcopal lay woman who was the pioneer Religion Editor of Publishers Weekly and is a frequent author on theological subjects. The book, titled The Great Emergence, seeks to interpret the massive paradigm shift happening in the global economy, in social, cultural, political and environmental areas. With respect to Christianity, it is clear that a massive transformation is taking place in how the churches are responding to this post-modern environment. We are being challenged not only by the obvious big-ticket theological issues which seem to undercut traditional alignments. On the local ground, there is little brand loyalty to traditional denominational life. In a remarkable metaphor, the Church today seems compelled to have a giant rummage sale, much like the upheaval in the 16th century which produced the Protestant Reformation, and the response to it within the Roman Catholic Church, . There is no question that change is in the air, and it is unclear what will emerge. Look around you. How many or how few of those gathered at this monastery altar are lifelong, card-carrying Episcopalians? And whatever your heritage, what brings you here?
We need to remind ourselves. . .of two things we already know: first, the religious expression or result of the Great Emergence is a new configuration of Christianity, and second, this new “emerging” or “emergent” Christianity is fundamentally a body of people, a conversation, if you will. Only after that does it become a corpus of solutions and characteristics, accommodations and principles. It is a conversation being conducted, moreover, by people from diverse cultures and points of reference, as well as from widely divergent Christian backgrounds.4
The second book might be described as part of the conversation. take this bread is an autobiography by Sara Miles, a journalist who found her life blown away by the Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco.
Supper with God. This was what had grabbed me – and it wasn’t an accident. My year of questioning drew me to lift my head and look around, more thoughtfully at the place I’d wandered into: Saint Gregory of Nyssa, named after a fourth-century married bishop from Cappadocia, in what is now Turkey. A mystic, universalist, and humanist, Gregory had proclaimed that “the only thing worthwhile is being God’s friend.”5
Miles’s conversion came after a frequently hair-raising life as a journalist and activist in areas of social upheaval, notably in Latin America. Her introduction to church was almost accidental. As she grew to accept what friendship with God meant, she found herself challenging the leadership of the parish for its lack of outreach beyond its walls to the huge underclass of the hungry in the city. She wrote her mentor priest, (accusingly in her own words):
You created St. Gregory’s with a risky vision of open communion and welcome. You fought with the established hierarchy; made a big, beautiful room; put a Table in the middle of it; and opened the door to everyone. Years and years later, I walked in; you put your hands on me and baptized me and asked me to accept a commission we share: to continue in the breaking of bread. Did you mean that? What the hell did you think was going to happen?6
The Society of St. John the Evangelist shares with all of us gathered here the challenge to join that conversation. I’m glad that Miles asks the question bluntly. We must not tiptoe around the hard choices we face as followers of the Risen Jesus, we who are fed by him. It has been my privilege for eight and a half years to serve as Episcopal Visitor to the Society. To be a brother in a monastic society in this age is about as counter-cultural a life as I can imagine. Well, perhaps being a Buddhist monk in America would be more-so. Because you are here today, I imagine you are close to the struggles of the brothers to live within these beautiful but physically-demanding buildings, the impact of the economic downturn on the much-needed building renovations, the fact that their basic subsistence depends heavily on the support of friends like us. The real challenge is how to build on the legacy which introduced a generation and more of us to the ways of the spirit from the monks of the desert to Gregory of Nyssa to Augustine to Thomas Merton and the voices of today in the great spiritual traditions not only of Christianity and Judaism and Islam but those of Asia, and the prophets of the human spirit wherever they come from. The times call for courage and moral imagination, radical hope in the face of the cultural devastation of our time. How can the strategic location of the Monastery here in Cambridge and the pristine acres of Emery House in West Newbury serve a world crying for communion and community, for a vision of a just, green, and inclusive society, globally and in our backyards? That agenda cannot be solved – even addressed – by the brothers alone. In new ways, many of you are being invited into their conversation.
We long for things we do not fully understand – that takes courage, and it is a crucial human virtue, because we are forced to seek the good without a full understanding of what it involves.7
What we are offered in the Paschal mystery is an open door between earth and
heaven that no turn of events – no global crisis, no divine rummage sale – can ever close. The courage to persevere is found there, where Jesus is, now and for all time. Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it this way:
A place has been cleared where the act of God and human reality are allowed to belong together without rivalry or fear: the place where Jesus is. It is a place where human beings have only to be open to what is offered and where God demands nothing and imposes nothing but simply abides in unceasing love, a love that can only be imagined in the human world and human language in terms of vulnerability. It is thus a place where human competition means nothing; a place where the desperate anxiety to please God means nothing; a place where the admission of failure is not the end but the beginning; a place from which no one is excluded in advance.8
God is what we have not yet understood, the sign of a strange and unpredictable future.9
1. Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1950, p. 3
2. Ibid, p. 4
3. The words are adapted from Sermon 57 of St. Augustine, “On the Holy Eucharist,” and reflective of other writing by him on the implications that believers are being transformed through participation into the Body of Christ given for the world.
4. Op. cit., Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2008, p. 104
5. Op. cit., Ballantine Books, New York, 2007, p. 77
6. Ibid., p. 254
7. The words are from a review by Charles Taylor in the April 26, 2007 issue of the New York Review of Books of Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Taylor, the distinguished Canadian philosopher and professor at Northwestern University, is a winner of the noted Templeton Prize in religion. The study explores how a people (in this instance the Native American Crow nation), confronted with their society’s vulnerability to historical forces, can face up to the challenge courageously.
8. Rowan Williams, in Praying for England: Priestly Presence in Contemporary Culture, Samuel Wells and Sarah Coakley, eds., Continuum, London, 2008, p. 175
9. Rowan Williams, quoted in Mike Higton, Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams, SCM Press, London, 2004, p. 49
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