This is the text from which I preached at St. Peter's, Lewes, the little town on the bay by the big water, this last Sunday, July 5th. The actual sermon can be found here. As usual the preaching and the writing only match up "sort of." I hope you find it useful.
Saturday a week ago Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina was elected Presiding Bishop. After his election the House of Bishops sent a delegation to the House of Deputies with the message that he had been elected and the election tally. The message was received and given to a committee who reviewed the election and recommended action to be taken by the House of Deputies. The House of Deputies were then given the name and the recommendation (no surprise, to concur). The house strongly approved, and then in a sort of liturgical / legislative dance, the Presiding Bishop elect and the Presiding Bishop, his family and deputation from North Carolina were ushered into the House, and he was introduced by the Presiding Bishop and finally spoke, for the first time, to representatives of the whole church. His remarks were short and to the point. Near the end he said this:
“We are a good and wonderful church,
a good and wonderful people.”
We don’t often hear that these days. Too often over the past forty years we have heard about The Episcopal Church in difficulties – with great discord within and increasing disinterest from without. General Convention special programs, new prayer book, ordination of women, inclusion of LGBT folk, various scandals and challenges in both church and society… and on an on. What we tended to hear was, “ain’t it awful,” and it tended to stick, even with those of us who thought the changes were right and good.
So it was really great to hear such positive remarks, and then to think… that’s right!
“We are a good and wonderful church, a good and wonderful people.”
I’ve been to every General Convention since 1969 - sixteen meetings of people from all over the Episcopal Church, both in the US and overseas. At many of them I was a lobbyist, at six I was a deputy, just as Jeffery Ross is this year, and for four of them I was a staff member of the Episcopal Church Center. So I have been on the margins as a lobbyist, at the center as a deputy, and on call as staff. Each has been memorable in its own way.
This General Convention elected its first African-American Presiding Bishop, decided to include trial liturgies for marriage that were gender neutral, to change its instruments of governance so that it might better be an instrument of mission, and to begin the process of working towards a new prayer book, one for the twenty-first century. It was a busy, sometimes difficult and often challenging time.
The Episcopal Church has always been for me both local… as a parish and diocesan, and “universal” a national –international body, and I have loved being involved the life of this Church. So Bishop Curry’s remark was a wonderful and gracious word of encouragement not just for the church at large, but for the church where I am grounded, St. Peter’s. “We are a good and wonderful church, and people,” says something about our common life where we are – where we are grounded. In spite of our differences, issues, arguments and concerns, this place, this people “is a good and wonderful people.”
We need such encouragement, both in the church and in the nation. I am conscious that the temptation too is to always carp about the difficulties of being The United States of America and not take heart from “the better angels of our nature.” Too easily we gripe and mutter, rant and carry on about how awful things are in the United States. Too seldom do we remember that we are at our better moments, a good and wonderful country, a good and wonderful people.
“The better angels of our nature,” is a phrase from the end of Lincoln’s first inaugural address, just as the war (wrongly called civil) was beginning. It calls up the image of messengers from the core of what we hope we can be, coming forward and urging us on with encouragement to be better. Those messages have to do with peace, unity, tolerance, forgiveness, repentance, joy.
Sometimes it seems, as it must have seemed to Abraham Lincoln, that our unity as a nation is about to unravel. At such times an appeal to the better angels of our nature seems in order… that we might hold together with all our difficulties and disagreements and finally say of ourselves, “we are a good and wonderful country, a good and wonderful people.” Hearing the better angels and acting on their message can involve struggle and resolve, but also finally malice towards none, for the message is finally about moving on to the hope of a better world.
Words of encouragement take many forms. Today’s readings all have such encouragement.
We have been reading these past few weeks about the real questions about Israel having a king… First God challenges Samuel looking for a king, then God providing a new King instead of Saul, a shepherd David, from the fields. And today we read of God’s confirmation of David as king and his reign of 40 years. David was encouraged by God’s presence with him and with Israel.
Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” He draws courage from the idea that in Christ, even his weakness is a basis for strength. “I am weak, but you are strong,” and that strength is enough to encourage Paul and each of us in our journey in faith.
And in the Gospel, Jesus , amazed at the unbelief of people in his own home town, none the less encourages his disciples, and they go forth in mission with great success.
Whatever the hardships, the discouragements, the disillusionments, David and Paul and Jesus moved on. They kept on keeping on… seeking that higher goal to be good and wonder-filled as God’s people.
And of course that is the encouragement for this moment as well, both in the Church and in the United States of America. “Keep on keeping on.” We are called to high purpose, to be instruments of unity in a divided country and a divided church, and that unity is all the more important because disunity seems so much the reality. And it helps greatly to have some one say, as Bishop Curry said, “you are a good and wonderful people.”
Both the United States of America and The Episcopal Church are formed in the proposition that out of disunity grows competing claims for what to do as a way forward, and in the struggles that grow from those competing claims comes a new and more perfect union, if only we will keep on keeping on. Sometimes, as with the Civil War, the disunity grows to such force that the end of the experiment of “these united states” seems at hand. Sometimes, as with the struggles within The Episcopal Church, pitting two sorts of sensibilities about what it means to be Christian against one another, it looks as if dissolving the union that is The Episcopal Church is also at hand.
Of course the two entities – the State and the Church – are different in particular because the one – the State - is not linked with the other – the Church. One of the things we members of the Colonies were clear about was that there would be no link between the Church and State, such that not belonging to the church would be considered treason, or not being loyal to the State unchristian. Yet in many respects they are of the same cloth…Church and State are both ways of grounding our selves in the idea of “more perfect union” in which that which is good and wonderful in us finds voice.
It would be naïve to believe that attending to the angels of our better nature comes easily. There is struggle and often amazing disunity, but if we keep on towards the prize all that will pass and we will come to a place where we can remember, or say now, or say for our future, “this is a good and wonderful Church and we are a good and wonderful people.”
I believe we the people and this the country of The United States of America, are indeed a good and wonderful people – when at the last the better angels of our nature prevail. I believe we the people and this Episcopal Church, are a good and wonderful church, when there too the better angels of our nature prevail.
Let us pray for the Nation on this weekend of the celebration of our independence as a nation, a nation also dependent on God’s encouragement, and let us pray for this church, which relies entirely on God’s grace for encouragement and life. Let us keep on keeping on… and find encouragement from God’s grace now and always. AMEN.