5/30/2014

"Why I love the Episcopal Church," a sermon, and reflections on one for whom love was not enough.

Last Sunday, Easter IV,  The Reverend Larry Hofer preached a fine sermon at St. Peter’s, Lewes, Delaware. It was a delight to hear. I asked if I could reprint it on Preludium and he graciously consented.  Interestingly, one of the things he said in the sermon was echoed by another Episcopalian who has left Anglicanism for Rome. Here is the sermon:


"Why I love the Episcopal Churchm" by The Rev. Larry Hofer.

A few days after I became rector of St. Alban’s Church in Reading, PA the bishop, Mark Dyer called and invited me to have lunch with him.  During lunch, he said that he expected every priest in the diocese to preach a sermon once a year on the theme, “Why I love the Episcopal Church.”  And if one could not do this, he or she should look for a call elsewhere.  As I was driving from Bethlehem to Reading, I thought about nothing else, and found there are lots of reasons why I love this Church.


My own conviction is that the Episcopal Church is the most authentic expression of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church described in the Creeds.  Here are some of my reasons for that conviction.


In Greek, there is a word, zygon which means connection, to bring together.  I love the way the Church connects us to the time of Christ and to our Old Testament roots through the reading of scripture, the creeds, through liturgy and hymns.  We are challenged to look at a scriptural passage in the context of God’s loving purpose for his people; not to just pull passages out of context as kinds of proof texts trying to prove a point.  Archbishop Cranmer in the 16th century said, “Those things that pertaineth most closely to Christ we take more literally; those passages that are more distant we take as a figure.  When for example we read in the psalms “the little hills skipped for joy” it does not mean that in fact the hills jumped around, but rather there is a joy in the Holy God so profound that language strains to express it and so the psalmist says, “the little hills skipped for joy.”


I am grateful too, for the liturgy that connects us through not only the great prayers and devotions of the early Church, and through the centuries, but also to those who have gone on before us.  In the Preface to the Sanctus we pray, “Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels, and all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your name.”   
For a moment, we are one with all those who have gone on before us – parents and siblings, friends and those whose names are known to God alone.  The division between the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant is suspended are we are connected once again.


And we are connected to one another in baptism and the common life of the Church as we minister together.  St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians writes “…in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  (Galatians 3:26-29).  It would be in the spirit of Paul to go on and say in Christ there are no longer Republicians or Democrats, old or young, black or white, liberals or conservatives, gay or straight, -- all are one in Christ and we live as though these differences had disappeared.   

Manifesting that unity in Christ has been the vocation of our communion for the last fifty years.  Here at St. Peter’s we have sought to live into this vision and it will continue to be our mission that we accept with joy.  The Church always has a vocation and mandate to proclaim the Gospel of God’s love for all – “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”  

The Greek word for world is cosmos, the whole creation.  God is available to all, and loves all.  That is what it means to say the Church is catholic, it is to include all as a sign of the Kingdom of God.  It is our way of saying the arms of God are wide open to all.  

 Many years ago, J.B. Phillips wrote a book with the title “Your God is too  Small.”  There is always a temptation of reducing the Gospel to our proportions and perceptions – proclaiming a God that is too small.  Our day and age needs a bold Gospel that includes everyone in God’s love.


To be connected carries its responsibilities as well.  And being connected to one another is to uphold and support one another.  That is the point of Stephen Ministers, a one on one ministry of listen and caring.  It is a way of deepening the ministry of the parish and caring for one another.  We strengthen one another through Education for Ministry and studying the Bible.


Episcopal Relief and Development connects us to the victims of disease, disaster, local food bank, and famine.  It was said of the 18th century Anglicans that they prayed on their knees on Sunday and their neighbors the rest of the week.  As a Church, we have sought to minister to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick and those needing the basic necessities of life.  “Just as you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it onto me.”


The Anglican Church has nurtured lay theologians – C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers and in our country William Stringfellow, Denis Baly.  These men and women have enriched the Church through their scholarship and learning.  They have also made the faith intelligible to many far beyond our Church.  They have challenged the Church to think more seriously and clearly about issues of war and peace, faith and reason, and the role of the laity in the life of the Church.


I also love the Episcopal Church because it has a sense of humor.  About every ten years, The Archbishop of Canterbury invites all the bishops in the Anglican Communion to meet together in England.  There is a great service at Christ Cathedral, Canterbury to begin the meeting and after the service, the clerk of the conference takes attendance.  The clerk does this in the style of the English Church, which is to say "the Rt. Rev.  name , Lord Bishop of  name  of the diocese ," and the Bishop would stand.  And so he called “The Rt. Rev. Charles Dunlap Brown, Lord Bishop of  Southwest Virginia.”  He did not stand.  And so the clerk announced again, “The Rt. Rev. Charles Dunlap Brown, Lord Bishop of Southwest Virginia.”  He still did not stand and so the Bishop sitting next to him prompted him to stand.  Bishop Brown said, “I just want to hear it one more time.”  Or the curate who was having lunch with his Bishop and earnestly asked him, “Is there salvation outside the Anglican Church?”  The Bishop thought a moment and said, “Yes, but no gentleman would take advantage of it.”  Humor is an entree into looking at ourselves from a different perspective and can help heal differences between peoples.  Humor keeps us from a rigid and judgmental mindset and free us from a narrow dogmatism.  Humor opens windows and lets fresh air in.


Above all, I am committed to this Church because at its very center is the Gospel of God’s love for all of us.  Bishop Browning who was presiding bishop was fond of saying, “there are no outcasts in the Church.  And he was right.

Only sacrificial love is adequate to the needs of people and only sacrificial love is faithful to the Gospel.  In George Bernard Shaw’s play, St. Joan, there is a moment when Joan of Arc is desperately trying to get Charles, the insipid, spineless dauphin, to show a little fire and initiative.  Finally, in frustration she shouts at him that there is one thing he has never learned.  He asks what that is.  Joan says, “Charlie, you have never learned that we are put on earth not to do our own will but to do God’s.”  God’s will is that we should manifest his love in this place and throughout the Church.


It is interesting that the word “love” takes a whole chapter in the Book of Corinthians to define.  God’s love is what Christianity has to say to the world.  We can have technology, factories, armies, money, religious attendance membership in the Church, faith – all these things but if you do not have love, you do not have enough.  That is what Paul says and what our Church teaches and stands for.   

So let the Apostle have the last word, “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  

Hofer says, early on in the sermon, "My own conviction is that the Episcopal Church is the most authentic expression of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church described in the Creeds."  Greg Griffith, of StandFirm, made an interesting parallel comment in an article announcing that he had left The Episcopal Church for the Roman Catholic Church. About halfway into the article he has a sentence that begins, "On the one hand there is Anglicanism, an expression of faith that in the abstract - its doctrines and theology - is as nearly perfect as I believe man has ever succeeded in achieving...", which is why he stood firm, one supposes. Then he opines that Anglicanism "in practice has unraveled into a chaotic mess."

Fr. Hofer and Greg Griffith agree that there is something about Episcopal / Anglican expression of the faith that is very attractive.  But where Griffith believes it has all gone messy, Hofer believes it remains, in its own quirky way, a repository for the basic tenant that God is love, and that love becomes binding on all of us.

Fr. Hofer believes that The Episcopal Church is "the most authentic expression of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church." He obviously means The Episcopal Church, but by extension he means also the Anglican Communion. Hofer believes the Episcopal Church is about connections - with God and one another, and finally about the love without which nothing suffices.  Hofer's church is the body of Christ with open arms. 

I am not sure what Griffith's church, as a body, is about, but my guess is that in the long run, if it is an expression of the body of Christ (as it must surely finally be) it too will be the body of Christ with open arms.

But for now Griffith must pull away from Anglicanism, and expression of faith as nearly perfect as possible, because it is chaotic.  I wish him well in the place where he has chosen to go. 

I stand with Fr. Hofer, in the community that believes that the body of Christ must become more nearly perfect in love, even when the practice seems messy.

 

4 comments:

Christina Brennan Lee said...

Life is messy, why shouldn't the Church reflect all that is in life however messy,in times of sorrow and joy, disagreement and even sometimes just boring but in a comfortable way - we are truly within the Cosmos! Great sermon to read more than once.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you for reprinting Larry's sermon here. Good stuff, that. Well done, my brother.

As for Gregg, I confess that I put on my asbestos sneakers, strolled over to Viagraville and read his essay. I couldn't help shake the feeling that if he had just landed in an "orthodox" Anglican Church that could attract young couples with children, he would have stayed. It all seemed to boil down to where his 9 year old daughter was happy.

Didn't have anything to do with the fact that churches that are formed around the concept of excluding people are really only attractive to crabby old men and women who like to yell, "Get off my damn lawn!"? Nah!

Even so, I wish him well. And, we'll keep the porch light on for him.

Jeff Ross said...

Saint Peter's is blessed to have Larry, Carlyle and you too! Thank you all so much for caring for our community while I was on sabbatical. Blessings!

Jeremy Bonner said...

Bishop Dyer's pronouncement (quoted in the sermon) seems incredibly flawed. An annual sermon on why I love Anglicanism (in its broadest sense) or why I love the Church (without denominational qualifiers) seems reasonable, but my own experience of TEC, ACNA and the Church of England is akin to Faulkner's remarks concerning his home state of Mississippi (you don't love because, you love despite). Institutional realities always come up short because the people who run those institutions are inherently flawed and only get anywhere through the efficacy of Grace.

Most of the great Anglican divines rarely spoke of the Church of England or the Protestant Episcopal Church because these were simply national labels for a set of universal theological principle.

I know I've said this in the past, but I do find interesting the assumption that appears to prevail in TEC that ACNA congregations are defined solely by exclusion. It certainly never seemed to be the case with certain of the congregations that I knew in Pittsburgh (the only place for which I can speak with authority), at least when it came to the homeless, poorer high school students, or those in prison.

The reality is surely that every Christian community has its outcasts and its marginalized and is better or worse at identifying them and trying to improve that situation.

It's also the case that there are points on which every Christian community does not feel that it can compromise for the sake of the order. It's true in TEC and it's true in ACNA. We would all be better off if we started with that premise and went on from there.